Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru is mournful and hopeful, discouraging and life-affirming – all at the same time. The film tells the story of Kanji Watanabe, a middle-aged, middle management bureaucrat. He works at city hall, a kafkaesque maze of offices, hallways and stairways. Every surface is covered with teetering piles of paperwork, which threaten to cave in and bury the (mostly) men who work there. They keep their heads down as they do their monotonous work, and seem to do just enough to get by. A group of women come to complain about a disease and mosquito-infested cesspool, and they’re driven from department to department in a sort of hopeless joke that everybody is in on but them. Everybody knows that nobody is going to help them.
Watanabe, a quiet man with huge, expressive frightened-rabbit eyes, learns that he has stomach cancer, and realizes he has less than a year to live. He’s not ready to die, because he’s never really lived. In English “Ikiru” means “to live,” and for the rest of the film Watanbe examines what it means to be alive, what it means to be human, and what makes being alive valuable to him. The next few days unfold in great detail – he meets a novelist, and they hit all the nightspots. He meets a Toyo, a young woman from his office who needs his help to quit her job. And then in an odd but oddly effective twist, the film shifts to six months later, and is told in a series of flashbacks by Watanabe’s co-workers.
The movie is visually beautiful – full of graceful, thoughtful space and movement. As Watanabe is consumed with self-reflection, as he examines his life, we see him through windows, through waving panes of glass, in mirrors, through gleaming rows of glasses. The film itself has a pale, cloudy light that washes over you in waves as you watch.
From the first, Watanabe is established as an ordinary man. Nothing about his life is glamorous or even all that interesting, until we learn that he’s going to die. And in his search for some understanding of what it means to live, he doesn’t become a less ordinary person, he doesn’t have a fling with a celebrity or go on an extravagant shopping spree or hang glide over a volcano. (As he might do in a Hollywood film.) He goes back to work! Back to his same job. He finds his way after spending some time with the young woman who recently quit her job. She represents life to him. She’s brimming over with it, she laughs, she chatters, she eats. Everywhere they go, she eats her food and Watanbe’s as well, because he has no appetite. I love the fact that her hunger and her obvious enjoyment of food is something that marks her as bright and vital.
And do you know what she does that makes her so happy and glad to be alive? She loves her new job in a factory, making toy rabbits. She loves the toy rabbits, and she says that while she makes them she feels as though she’s playing with every baby in Japan. She tells him he should make something, and that’s when it all becomes clear to him, and he goes back to his job and pursues it with a passion, and uses his office to make something good–a playground. Because, like everybody else in the world, he’s been extraordinary all along. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “No work is insignificant. All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence.”
After his death we’re told that Watanabe spent the last few moments of his life swinging in the park he built, and singing Gondola no Uta (life is short). It’s a painfully beautiful scene, as he sits swinging and singing, with …”the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.” Watanabe straddles both worlds, the world of the living and the world of the dead, and the snow falls around him as quietly and relentlessly as time passing, softly erasing our great works and our small gestures, our plans and memories, our joys and our sorrows.