In a Post-War Tokyo, when the bureaucratic chief of department of the City Hall Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) finds that he has a terminal cancer, so he decides to live his last months of life as much as possible. While dying, he finds the meaning of life, and fights for the construction of a playground in a poor zone of the city and the legacy of his existence.
Ikiru means ‘to live’ and it is an undeniable masterpiece. With a story like that it would no doubt go the usual top-down preachy approach, but Kurosawa never treads the well-worn path and he has achieved something simply extraordinary here. There are a few scenes which are simply amazing and I will mention just one.
Watanabe is still at a loss with what he wants to do with the rest of his days. While baring his soul to his spunky ex-co-worker, he finds his direction in his infinitesimal life. It is not what he realized that is incredible, it is the setting up of that scene. It is at a restaurant with a staircase leading up to the seated area. In the background we see a group of office-type excitedly anticipating something. In the foreground we see Watanabe and the woman. The two different parties in the foreground and background are in the perfect juxtaposition. When Watanabe finally knows what he needs to do, he walks with twinkling steps down the long stairs with a smile plastered on his face, and the group of office workers started launching into a birthday song for a person walking up the stairs. If that’s not one of the most sublime scenes in cinema, I don’t know what it is. You see, the happy birthday song is for Watanabe’s rebirth. Kurosawa is saying that it is not the number of days in your life that is important but what you do with your lot, however short it is, that is most important. My tears rolled…
Kurosawa is a master storyteller. It would be so easy to go the heart-rending route after that sublime scene but Kurosawa pulls everything, including the throttle back, to show Watanabe’s funeral a few months later. It suddenly felt like a missed opportunity, a wasted move. It felt like a full-stop! But this final hour is a tour de force of sublime power as it becomes a critique of typical top-down human behavior and we also get an in-depth look into Watanabe’s end days through the third person. Think a variation of Rashomon as we see flashbacks of Watanabe’s efforts to do something not for himself but for a bunch poor folks. The narration by various people at the wake culminates to a haunting picture of Watanabe that I know I will never be able to forget, likewise with the life lesson learned.
Watanabe has left an indelible mark on a bare landscape and a legacy behind, but the thing you have to remember steadfastly is that is never his intention. His intention is simple – he wants to cut through all the bureaucracy to build a playground for the common folk. For some people the undertaking is ludicrous and small, but for me life is about committing your best effort to performing tasks that you deem meaningful. Taking religion aside, life is ultimately meaningless when everything is said and done. What everyone thinks about Watanabe is utterly besides the point. The lesson learnt here is that one’s life is about bringing your best to anything you know is the right thing to do, like for me at this point, it is penning down my thoughts and feelings in this small little review. Masterpiece!