I watched Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru after many years. It is the story of a man who learns that he is dying of stomach cancer and so decides to use his life to do something meaningful. You can well imagine what kind of sentimental claptrap this would be in the hands of Hollywood. Ikiru—which means “to live”—is not at all sentimental. In fact, the main character dies halfway through the film. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t inspiring. It shows how one man decided to change his life for the better without any of the cheap movie tricks that I so despise. (Think: Beaches.)
The film is a product of the post-war period in Japan and focuses on a bureaucrat, Kanji Watanabe, who follows the tradition of doing as little as possible. This is highlighted at the beginning of the film when Watanebe uses as scrap paper, pages from a document titled, “A Proposal for Increasing Departmental Efficiency.” This is followed by the narrator telling us, “The best way to protect your place in the world is to do nothing at all.” This goes along with a quote provided in Stephen Prince’s excellent commentary from Masao Miyamoto, “The three great principles of Japanese bureaucracy are: don’t be late; don’t take time off; and do no work.” Watanabe wasn’t always like this, but he certainly is at this mature point in his career.
At the same time, we are introduced to a group of local women who want the government to fix a problem. Near where they live is an open sewer that is making their children sick. They want it to be remediated and turned into a park. So they go to the government and end up being sent from one agency to another. They stand as the opportunity that Watanabe needs to find redemption and his pathway “to live”—even if it is for a short time.
(As a political matter, I have a problem with too much focus on governmental bureaucracy. Bureaucratic obstruction in the government was a big problem and still is in many places. But at least in this country, it has gotten much better. Now, the “run around” is much more common in dealing with corporations. A couple of years ago, Paul Krugman noted, “I’ve recently had fairly extensive dealings with both our healthcare system and with the New Jersey DMV. In one case, I encountered vast amounts of paperwork, mind-numbing bureaucracy, and extremely frustrating delays. In the other, my needs were met quickly and politely. So far, then, it’s DMV 1, private health system (and I have very good insurance) 0.” That’s my experience.)
The structure of the film is very interesting. As I said, Watanabe dies halfway through the film. As a result, his actual redemption is shown through the recollections of other bureaucrats as they get drunk at his wake. While sober, they all want to disregard what he has accomplished as just doing his job. But we’ve already seen that all the bureaucrats think their jobs are to do nothing. As they drink they begin to celebrate what he has done and commit to doing it themselves. Of course, the next day at work, they are all back to business as usual. All of them, that is, except for one mostly impotent low-level bureaucrat, Kimura, who acts as the conscience of the second half of the film.
The whole film is episodic. In the first half, we see Watanabe trying different things to make sense of life. An extended section involves a pulp novelist taking him on a tour of the night life. The whole thing is shot from the outside with a distinct subtext of disapproval at the hollowness of it. Then Watanabe starts following a young woman around who quit the bureaucracy because the people who worked for it never did anything. This isn’t sexual. He sees in her a more valid outlook on life. But ultimately, he returns to work, but with the idea of actually doing something. The second half is also episodic, but for a different reason. As in Rashomon, we get different views of the work that Watanabe did. But unlike in that film, it is done to create a single narrative: Watanabe working for the mothers to overcome bureaucratic obstruction.
Despite all of this, the narrative works well. I suspect that had it been normally structured, it would not have worked that well. Or it would have been a much shorter film. Once Watanabe has his insight about what kind of life is worth living, there is little to do except to show the results. So dramatically, the cut to Watanabe’s wake is jarring. But it allows the film to delve more deeply into the social dysfunction of the bureaucracy.
Clearly, there is a cynical take on the film: nothing changes. Unlike in Hollywood films, Watanabe doesn’t start a trend or lead a revolution. If he had, the movie wouldn’t be realistic. It would be just another story of the romantic hero who saves the world. But ultimately, Watanabe does save his world. And in doing so, he helps all the people in that neighborhood who got an environmental hazard replaced with a park. What’s more, he did act as an inspiration for Kimura, who we see at the very end of the film as he walks out of frame having just been watching kids playing in the new park.
Technically, the film is excellent as well. Most of the set design is very crowded until Watanabe has his epiphany. This is represented in the piles of paper that surround all the bureaucrats in his office as well as the night life. I think it is a stretch to suggest that Kurosawa was making a point about how our things distance us from one another, but that seems a perfectly correct interpretation of what got onto the screen. It is made even more concrete as the bureaucrats get drunk, they are seen crawling over each other.
The camera work is typical of the Kurosawa troupe. We see cross cut tracking shots just like we see in Seven Samurai and Ran. It is quite exciting to watch, especially for a film about a man’s existential crisis. There is surprisingly little music used in the film, which helps with keeping it from turning sentimental. I find I’m often offended when films overuse music to tell me what to feel. There is none of that here. But there is some great use of sound, as when Watanabe walks from the doctor in a daze. There is no sound until he almost walks in front of a truck, when all the sound comes blasting back.
Other than the script, however, the core of the film is Takashi Shimura’s performance. If you know him, it is most likely as the lead ronin in Seven Samurai. But I especially associate him with the woodcutter in Rashomon. (He’s also great in the Japanese version of Godzilla; if you haven’t seen both versions you owe it to yourself.) As regular readers know, I’m a big fan of Toshiro Mifune. But he is a star more than an actor. Shimura is a great actor. In fact, it is hard to believe that the little dying Bureaucrat in 1952 is played by the same man who plays the battle weary ronin in 1954. Of course, this isn’t to say he isn’t a star too. Regardless of the part, he radiates charisma on the screen.
It is commonly said that one should read Don Quixote three times: once when you are young, then in middle age, and finally when you are old. The idea is that you will perceive it differently at those times in your life. I’m sure that’s true of any great work of art. It is certainly true that I see Ikiru differently now than I did in decades previous. As a young man, I was much more egotistical—looking at the world only as a means to my fulfillment. Now I see things much more as Watanabe: I would like to be useful to the world. But being useful is not as easy as it sounds. We are all used to doing so little. We sleepwalk through life like we are zombies. It takes effort “to live.”