Why are we here? What purpose does our existence serve? How can we tell if our lives have meaning, if they are worth living? What is a life that is worth living? These are questions for which art—be it literature, poetry, painting, or cinema—is uniquely poised to answer. Other things, such as science and law may purport to hold the answers. However, their answers will always be unsatisfactory, will always seem like half-truths and theories when compared to the mysteries, conundrums, and paradoxes that are inherent to artistic explorations of those aforementioned questions.
Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru is a fine example of this. While Kurosawa is best known for his samurai epics and period pieces (Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Ran), Ikiru (lit. “To Live”) is no less a masterpiece. What’s more, it’s one that feels vaguely biblical at that, as it takes on topics and expounds upon themes that could have easily come from that most existential of books: Ecclesiastes.
Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura, best known for his role as Seven Samurai‘s elderly samurai leader) is about as sad a sack as one can imagine. He’s spent nearly 30 years of his life working in the city offices, but even after such tenure, he’s still little more than a faceless cog in post-WWII Japan’s bureaucratic machine. He spends his days stamping documents, oblivious to the machinations of his underlings, who constantly wonder when the old man is going to die so they can move up the totem pole.
It’s a predictable existence, but also a safe one. That is, until Watanabe discovers that he has stomach cancer. The viewer learns this fact at the very beginning of the movie, when an emotionless narrator informs us of his imminent demise, which only makes us feel even more pity for the man.
Shocked out of mundanity, Watanabe realizes that he has not lived a life worth living. In fact, he has not lived much of a life at all, and it scares him enough to take his first leave of absence in almost three decades. Watanabe’s co-workers are oblivious to his disease. All they know is that the old man has stopped showing up for work. And his son and daughter-in-law ignore the old man, seeing him as little more than an inconvenience, something that holds them back from having a life of their own.
Disgusted with himself, Watanabe begins drinking himself into oblivion, but that only fuels his antipathy. He meets a fledgling writer, who takes Watanade out on the town for a whirlwind night of debauchery. But the wine, women, and song only cause him more agony. In one of the film’s most wrenching scenes, Watanabe brings an entire dance club to a standstill when he bursts into a mournful song about the brevity of life.
Stumbling home the next morning, however, Watanabe encounters some hope in the form of a young woman who just quit his office. Toyo is unlike anyone else in Watanabe’s life, simply because she actually seems to enjoy living. Although his family is shocked by the behavior, Watanabe begins seeing the young woman, though not for any romantic reasons. Watanabe simply wants to know her secret, what causes her such joy in living, in working such a menial job as making toys.
Eventually, even Toyo becomes rather disgusted with the old man, thinking him little more than a pathetic old lecher who likes to buy her food and stockings. But even so, she rejuvenates Watanabe, gives him hope that there might still be some little thing he can do that will give his life meaning before the end.
One of the most interesting aspects of Ikiru is that it does not end with a soaring, heartwarming testament to Watanabe’s redemption and service. Rather, it ends with an extended denouement—at Watanabe’s wake no less—during which his co-workers, superiors, and family members inspect, criticize, and even undermine Watanabe’s life and deeds out of fear, selfishness, pride, and skepticism. They seem shocked and amazed that an old man with no ambition could undergo such a transformation, and so they attempt to explain it away however they can. In the process, they miss the point entirely.
Only a few of them seem to understand, but they’re quickly shouted down by their colleagues. In this regard, Ikiru, in addition to an existential treatise, also becomes a critique of faceless authority, and post-WWII bureaucracy in particular. In Ikiru, the irony is that it is the government—that which is supposed to uphold and preserve life—which robs life of meaning. There is no conviction or passion in City Hall, merely a desire to hold onto secured positions and a concern that proper protocol and departmental boundaries are observed.
In a flash of dry humor a la Brazil, a group of citizens come to City Hall demanding that a stagnant, disease-ridden pool be removed from their neighborhood. A rapid sequence of scenes finds them being shuffled from one department to the next, each department denying any responsibility or jurisdiction. Meanwhile, nothing gets done and the neighborhood’s children continue to get sick. Only when Watanabe grasps the power of service is he able to rise above the institution and pursue a task of actual significance.
It’s easy to explain away the film’s conclusions, that a life worth living is a life of service and sacrifice, as trite, cliched, even old-fashioned. We may pay lip service to such a sentiment, but in reality, we want some new theory, some new way of living that allows us to have meaning without being forced to sacrifice. But Ikiru shows the consequences of such a life—it’s just as empty as before, perhaps even moreso.
On the other hand, the ending might be interpreted as somewhat ambiguous. Did Watanabe’s service and sacrifice mean anything? Or is the mere fact that he served meaningful in and of itself? And what, exactly, is his legacy? Like all great and timeless works of art—a category to which Ikiru, like so many of Kurosawa’s works, undoubtedly belongs—the answers are ultimately hinted at and left mysterious, putting the onus on the viewers to reflect on their own lives and come to their own conclusions.
A restored version of Ikiru has been released by The Criterion Collection—more info here. More info on the film can be found on its page at the IMDb. Seth Studer’s review of Ikiru was what got me interested in the first place.