Kanji Watanabe is a longtime bureaucrat in a city office who, along with the rest of the office, spends his entire working life doing nothing...
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“I wasted time, and now doth time waste me.”
Akira Kurosawa’s willingness to draw upon Western influences helped make him a truly international director. Indeed, Ikiru is loosely based upon Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illyich. The breadth of Kurosawa’s inspiration may help explain his global popularity, the universality of his themes -how do we choose to spend our lives and whether we leave this world better, even slightly, than how we found it – speak to audiences of any language.
Ikiru begins with an x-ray image of the stomach of Kanji Wantanabe (Takashi Shimura), a bureaucrat in the Tokyo city government. Wantanabe is the head of the Public Affairs department, and his main duties appear to be stamping documents and shuffling them to some other section of the government. He lives with his son and daughter-in-law, but has no real connection to them. After he receives his diagnosis, Wantanabe embarks on a night of drinking and dancing with a stranger. He later befriends a young female colleague who admits that her nickname for him was “The Mummy.” At his funeral, his co-workers struggle to understand why he pushed through a public project so vigorously in his final months.
Kurosawa divides Ikiru into two parts. The first part is Watanabe’s reaction to his diagnosis. In this way, Kurosawa manages two points of view within the same film. We gain the benefit of seeing Watanabe’s transformation and how others misinterpret it. Kurosawa does not shy from the horrors of a terminal disease. A fellow patient in the waiting room lists the symptoms of stomach cancer as Watanabe turns to the camera we realize he has every one. At his appointment, the doctor lies to him and says that it’s only a mild ulcer. Watanabe stops going to work and drinks as punishment for his half-filled life. At night, when setting his alarm clock, he recognizes the cruel mercilessness of time wasted and begins to cry under the cover. Unable to open up to his son, he and stranger engage in a night of hedonism that is ultimately hollow and leaves him unfulfilled. At one bar he sings Gondola no Uta, a love song, so hauntingly that the patrons turn silent and reflect, as we do, on their own mortality.
Kurosawa smartly sets the second part of the film at Watanabe’s funeral, showing Watanabe’s determined efforts in flashbacks. Watanabe’s superiors do not want to give him credit for pushing the park’s bureaucracy because to do so would question their own power structure. The other department heads are preoccupied with protecting their “turf.” His subordinates find it easier to continue their routines rather than serving the public. They are briefly shamed by the weeping of the mothers’ who proposed the park project but quickly resume their eating and drinking. Finally, after continued discussion, Watanabe’s subordinates realize that he shepherded the park construction through the bureaucracy because he only had months to live. What follows are promises to live up to that ideal, promises that fall by the wayside the next day at work. In one of the flashbacks, Kurosawa presents the film’s enduring image – Watanabe on the swing in the snow. Here is a man who was only able to become a child in the winter of his life. He again begins to sing Gondola no Uta, but this time joyfully, knowing that he accomplished at least one thing in his life that was pure and good.
Ikiru begins with a shot of an x-ray image. The x-ray shows that the man with stomach cancer, a death sentence. But Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece shows how incomplete an x-ray is. It may show what is inside a person, but it cannot reveal what we are made of.