Shimura as Kanji Watanabi

Akira Kurosawa, probably most widely known to Western audiences for action, crime, and high drama took a more sedate, introspective approach to this morally complex, beautiful film, “Ikiru” or “to live”.

Kanji Watanabe (played by Kurosawa favourite Takashi Shimura) is a character who is dead on his feet, a faceless bureaucrat in a local ministry, suffocating under the weight of tonnes of paperwork. While he may have a pulse, he is essentially a walking corpse, and is dubbed “the mummy” by one of his employees. He has nothing to show for his shell of a life other than a “25 years of service” certificate on his lonely bedroom wall. It is only when he discovers he has stomach cancer, and mere months left, that he begins to learn to live, and strives to leave something positive in his passing.

The film is one of two acts. Kurosawa plays the first half of the film fairly straight, in a standard linear storytelling fashion, but has left his tell-tale mark on directorial and writing choices throughout. Pre-diagnosis, in a seemingly insignificant scene, Watanabe checks his pocket watch as time ticks by to the end of another dull, empty day. Post-diagnosis however, setting his alarm clock sends him in to a panic, as he realises every second that passes is another closer to his inevitable end, and he cries himself to sleep filled with emotions he hasn’t felt in 30 years.

In the following days, he realises he has failed to live any kind of meaningful existence, and overdoses on excess – drink, women and music – not to try and enjoy himself, but to punish himself for wasting his life. It is in the first act he makes the first connections with others, something which he has long since ignored. He meets a writer (aptly naming himself “Mephisto”) who becomes his tour guide to all the joys and lustful sins life can offer. This culminates in one of the most moving scenes in the film. While in a rock and roll bar, he asks the piano player to play “Life is short, fall in love, dear maiden”, and while the piano plays, Watanabe sings, tears streaking down his face, and whole bar falls silent, listens to him and seem to reflect on the emptiness of their existence  – an incredibly powerful scene and the first of a few times Watanabe creates opportunities for others to think about their own lives and change their ways, something which Kurosawa seems to want us to do, as viewers of the film.

The second connection he makes is with a girl he worked with, someone who appears to have an abundance of happiness for the little joys of life. Watanabe becomes infatuated with her, not in a lustful way, but believing her to have a “key” to unlocking life’s potential. She quickly tires of his obsessive attention, and it appears Kurosawa is trying to tell us not to look to others for our own contentment, but to find the answer within ourselves. The girl’s involvement is not totally without jusification though, as she becomes the catalyst to his epiphany – to use his influence at the office to push through a scheme to create a playground for children, leaving a positive mark on the world. Kurosawa takes an unusual turn here, rather than follow Watanabe through to the end, we are now informed by a brief narration that “our hero dies 5 months later”.

The second act of the film is not as predictable and slushy as you may expect, and Kurosawa’s final message is a complex, paradoxical mix of pessimism and hope. Abandoning the totally linear methods of the first half of the film, this half is told by way of Rashomon-esque flashbacks, and Kurosawa focuses not on the individual, but on the memories and legacy left in the passing of his life, and the influence felt by those left behind. At his wake, Watanabe’s colleagues piece together their stories of the past 5 months, and alongside them we realise that Watanabe used every ounce of his strength to get the playpark built, finishing with Watanabe dying, singing happily in the snow, on a swing in the park. This is the image that people will take away from this film. and it is almost certainly one of the most the most powerful closing images ever seen in film. After much drinking, the wake visitors joyfully declare they will strive to be more like Watanabe in their actions, strive to help others and cut through the red-tape of their job. The film appears to be taking a rather sentimental tone.

The next day brings a dose of realism however, and when a situation arises which give Watanabe’s colleagues an opportunity to commit to the previous nights promises, they do nothing. This cynical touch of realism is really what pushes this film to masterpiece. While being a celebration of life, and that great things can be attained by an individual (a theme in itself  not often found in classic Asian cinema), the film also tells us that is almost impossible for a single man to change the “big picture”. A strong, realistic message that pulls the film back from the brink of slushiness and sentimentality and grounds it in reality. Watanabe accomplished his legacy, did not waste his life, but was ultimately not able to persuade others to follow suit. Just like Watanabe had to do earlier in the film, they will have to reach that magical moment of realisation on their own terms.

The film is seemingly a very personal film for Kurosawa who was concerned through much of his career about leaving a lasting legacy on the world. With the subject matter, and Kurosawa’s obvious personal attachment to the story, it would be very easy for the plot to fall into the realms of predictable and sentimental, and in lesser hands it probably would have. Kurosawa, aided by Shimura, traverses the pitfalls nimbly and expertly, and the film, while at times uplifting and inspiring, manages to reign it all in by maintaining a healthy realism not typical of this type and era of filmmaking.

The supporting cast are excellent, but this is Shimura’s show, and although the role demands a lot of him, using every facet of his range he handles it faultlessly, making it my personal favourite performance of his. The irony of the situation, walking dead through life, only to truly live when given notice of impending death, is personified perfectly in Shimura’s Watanabe, whose transformation from empty shell to a love-to-live character is subtle and realistic.

In making this film about a man determined to leave a legacy, Kurosawa succesfully avoids cliche and in turn further cements his own legacy with a deeply personal film bought to life by Takashi Shimura. This poignant, timeless film, with a powerful and heartfelt message, in my opinion, is one of Kurosawa’s career highlights, and one of those rare films which may make you look at life a little differently. A must-see.

5/5

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