An aging bureaucrat reexamines his life after discovering he has terminal stomach cancer.
When Kurosawa’s name comes up I’m sure the first thing many people think of are his epic samurai films like "Seven Samurai”, “Ran”, or “Kagemusha”; one can often forget that Kurosawa’s oeuvre is incredibly diverse. While Kurosawa’s samurai cinema is what he’s primarily known for, he’s tackled plenty of other genres as well: "The Bad Sleep Well" and “High and Low" were more contemporary thrillers, while this film, Ikiru,is a straight drama akin to some of the films I’ve seen by Ozu (“Tokyo Story" in particular). What really blew me away were Kurosawa’s quiet themes that are the through line in this film and the way he addresses certain topics and issues. As the topic of this film is death, I expected this film to be a rather morose look at the end we all must face, but this film was not that. This film is a sentimental (but not sappy) look at life and what our lives mean to those around us, how the things we do in life can influence people far beyond our lifetime.
Life is brief/ fall in love, maiden/ before the crimson bloom/ fades from your lips/ before the tides of passion/ cool within you/ for those of you/ who know no tomorrow…
Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura, “Roshomon”), an elderly bureaucrat working for City Hall, discovers that he has stomach cancer and only a short time to live. Devastated, Watanabe searches for something to give his life meaning, and discovers that what he was looking for might’ve been right under his nose the whole time.
I suppose in order to really talk about this film I’m going to have to throw on a spoiler tag. You want a spoiler free review? Okay, this movie was great; you should see it.
All right, getting into spoilers. You’ve been warned.
So, Watanabe does die in the middle of this movie, this isn’t one of those films where the main protagonist suddenly finds out he’s going to live and then gets to live out his life after finding new meaning. I think, if this film had gone that route it would’ve totally cheapened the lessons that Kurosawa was trying to teach us here. Watanabe dies and in doing so he validates the whole story. When I was about halfway through this movie, I wasn’t sure if I was going to care for it entirely- the film was good, sure, but it covers ground that feels a little clichéd at this point- sure, this movie might’ve done it first, but the plot of ‘man finding meaning in his life in the face of death’ is a little drawn out, and I wasn’t really sure what Kurosawa could add to the conversation. Well, Kurosawa is a genius, so I have no idea why I ever doubted him.
Within the first twenty minutes of the film, we learn that Watanabe is dying, and almost immediately I was taken by Takashi Shimura’s lachrymose performance. He was teary-eyed and almost inconsolable; he avoids telling anyone about his diagnosis- even his son. Instead, he quits going to work and turns to drink (though the alcohol only pains his stomach more), and eventually meets a young man whom he asks to show him a good time. The young man takes Watanabe out for drinks and to see a strip tease, and Watanabe is happy for a short time, but the excess, in the end, causes him to vomit on the side of the road, and its clear that Watanabe does not find meaning in drink and other pleasures of the flesh. From there, Watanabe befriends a younger girl in an attempt to find love in his winter years; his neighbors and friends all look on with disapproving glances, and eventually the girl grows weary of Watanabe’s company and tells him to leave her alone. It’s then that Watanabe has a revelation, and he returns to work at City Hall.
The film then flashes forward a few months to Watanabe’s funeral, and we see all of the people that attend and the things they talk about. Through various flashbacks and monologues, we learn that Watanabe spent his last few months working to ensure the completion of a playground. As the attendees of his funeral discuss Watanabe’s life, they come too realize that he was fully aware of his finite time on earth, and they realize that what he did with that time- building a park- not only gave him something to live for, but it also gave him something to be remembered by. The other attendees, many of them also employees at the City Hall Watanabe worked at, all vow to improve their work so as to honor Watanabe’s memory.
I think the reason I loved this film far more than I imagined I would is because of the way it’s structured- showing the impact that we as humans can have on people even beyond our years on earth. Kurosawa took a story that has been done a million times- that of man finding meaning in his life- and changed the formula enough for it to really make a difference. This film shows that while we often don’t see the results of our own actions, others might. The work we do has implications and ripples that resound throughout the earth, far beyond the moment that we make these choices. While at times our lives might feel desperately hopeless, it’s in those moments that we are really given a choice between what is right and what is easy, and that is detailed so well in this film.
While this movie is about death, it is also about the preciousness of our time on earth, and how we can use that time to help others, and how our legacy can inspire those around us to further better mankind. What’s even better, is that this film does not feel overly sentimental- it makes its point in a way that feels genuine, and it leaves the viewer thoughtful and inspired.
About halfway through the movie I still wasn’t entirely sure how I felt, but by the end it had won me over completely. This is a brilliant film from an incredible filmmaker and I honestly can’t recommend it enough. It’s a celebration of life alongside death, for the two cannot exist without each other. This is a film that preaches one of the greater truths I’ve seen displayed in cinema: live a good life and your death won’t be meaningless.
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