Original release: October 9th, doctor 1952
Running time: 143 minutes
Country of origin: Japan
Original language: Japanese
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Miki Odagiri, Yunosuke Ito, Haruo Tanaka
Whether cinema can help us understand the meaning of life is an open question, but I think it can help us a ‘little bit’. I’ve noticed that more often than not, works of art tend to drift towards similar ideas when trying to solve the unsolvable, which would suggest some degree of objective truth,but it’s still far too complex for anyone to point to something specific and say: “that’s it!” One memorable example of a film that ponders on big questions would surely be Sam Mendes’s American Beauty (1999), and the first thing I was tempted to do when watching Akira Kurosawa’s classic Ikiru for the first time was to find out what the two films had in common. In both films, we can pinpoint a moment where the protagonist realises that something, somewhere went missing and their lives have become empty and joyless without it.
While for American Beauty’s Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) this is a random moment of clarity, Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) has his eyes opened by a terminal illness and the thought of impending death. When he learns of his stomach cancer, Watanabe looks back on three decades of impeccable service as a government bureaucrat with despair. That sense of accomplishment he probably thinks he’s supposed to feel, eludes him. Kurosawa makes a point early on by abandoning the protagonist just to take us around his office, revealing an inefficient system that I mistakenly identified as critique of the government at the time. In spite of showing his place of work, the film only comments on Watanabe, his colleagues and their attitudes only to end up with the conclusion that things can be accomplished by these people, who are referred to as “time-killers” by cynical and frustrated outsiders.
However, Watanabe’s inspiring journey begins with leaving work cold turkey upon hearing the news of his doom. He searches for meaning by submerging in Tokyo’s nightlife after meeting a novelist (Yunosuke Ito) who sees that Watanabe is at a significant turning point. The novelist is fascinated by the troubled man, but is mistaken when he says that Watanabe started living when first faced the prospect of death. At this point, Watanabe has merely opened his eyes to his own uninspiring past – which is therefore his legacy, if he is to die. The earthly pleasures of nightlife isn’t what he’s looking for, and not even a subsequent brief friendship with a young female subordinate (Miki Odagiri) can fill the void in his soul. The dying man’s profoundly surprising next step is what really puts Ikiru far above the so many vaguely pretentious esoteric statements about the bigger questions in life: he goes back to work.
Ikiru’s almost unparalleled power lies in its ability to inspire virtually anybody to make a positive change in their lives by showing Watanabe achieve something remarkable using the tools that had been in front of him all his life. Kurosawa takes his protagonist back to his desk where he’d been bundled up in bureaucratic mess for decades without ever realising the system’s only as good as the people within it. In the few months he has left to live, Watanabe delivers a little bit of beauty to his community through kindness and determination. His story, the last journey of a dying man puts the seed in the viewers’ minds; the simple but remarkable idea that we can just look around and do great things using what is already within reach.
Arpad is a Film Studies graduate and passionate photographer (he picked up the camera and started taking stills just as he began his studies of moving pictures). He admires directors that can tell a story first of all in images. More or less inevitably, Brian De Palma has become Aprad’s favourite filmmaker.
Then there’s Arpad’s interest in anime. He was just a boy when he saw Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind on an old VHS and was hypnotised by the story of friendship, devotion and sacrifice. He still marvels at the uncompromising and courageous storytelling in Japanese anime, and wonders about the western audience with its ever growing appetite for “Japanemation”.