You know the story. The terminally ill protagonist is going to spend the final months of his life on a quest for redemption, right? Well, sort of. The thing that distinguishes Ikiru from its countless imitators (I reviewed one of its more distant descendants, the South Korean Short Time, a few months ago) is that the main character, Watanabe, is not such a bad guy to start with. Yes, he is a bureaucrat who has spent his entire life passing people’s problems along to the next bureaucrat rather than helping them himself, but his largest crimes have been committed against himself. Put simply, he has neglected to lead a life.
Watanabe (Takashi Shimura, in an almost miraculously expressive performance) is a widower who lives with his son and daughter-in-law in the same awkward state of mutual indifference between generations that Yasujiro Ozu explored so beautifully in many of his films. Kurosawa does equal justice to it here. Watanabe’s work as a low-to-mid-level civil servant involves nothing more than stamping forms, or rather that’s all it has to involve, and Watanabe has become accustomed to doing nothing more than what he has to do. He is so busy with the mere mechanics of survival in a modern society that he has forgotten the reasons for survival. On learning that he is terminally ill, he takes a leave of absence from work and embarks on a desperate but scattershot mission to bring his life meaning.
Ikiru (the title means “to live”) opens with an x-ray image of Watanabe’s cancerous stomach, and a sober voice-over narrator informs us that our story’s protagonist is terminally ill, though he doesn’t know it yet. This establishes the narrative’s omniscient view of the story: rather than unfolding in the realist tradition in which the viewer discovers things only as the main character does, this movie stacks the deck against its hero, and then comments upon it in a style something like Greek tragedy crashing into documentary.
In the absence of a supportive family for Watanabe, two accessory characters serve as guides toward his enlightenment and death, and are performed with such warmth and humour that they add invaluable flavour to the picture. The first, a disillusioned young writer (Yûnosuke Itô) he meets in a bar, is sympathetic to Watanabe’s plight, and his protests that he never learned how to have a good time. Offering to act as Mephistopheles to the older man’s Faust, the writer takes Watanabe out for a night of debauchery, where he flirts with floozies and, in an incredibly moving scene, sings a song from his youth which brings a rowdy red-light establishment into silent reverie. But of course, simply spending his remaining months in a drunken haze does not present itself as a satisfying solution to his problems.
The second and more important guide along Watanabe’s path is a vivacious young girl, Toyo (Miki Odagiri), who initially tracks him down to rubber-stamp her resignation from the same office he works for. She’s found a better job, you see: assembling children’s toys. Moved and inspired by her obvious love for life (and perhaps, to be honest, just a little bit lecherous) Watanabe seeks Toyo’s company and she, a gentle soul sensing his loneliness, provides it, at least for a time. It is on one of his “dates” with Toyo that we first see Watanabe laugh, and it comes as great relief.
Inevitably, Watanabe goes a little too far in heaping his emotional dependency on Toyo, and frightens her away. She agrees to meet him for one final time, and he talks at length about an incident during his childhood in which he very nearly drowned in a pond. The fact that he was given a second chance at life and wasted it is unutterably bitter to him. But then, a miracle: in a moment of inspiration brought on by Toyo’s demonstration of one of the toys she has made, Watanabe hits on a small but worthy task within his abilities. A group of working-class residents has been complaining to his department about a dirty and ugly empty block near their homes, and been given nothing more than the run-around. Watanabe resolves to see the block filled with a children’s playground before he dies.
After this crucial scene, about two thirds of the way through, the movie’s narrative jumps forward, mercilessly and magnificently, to a wake being held for Watanabe after his inevitable death. The rest of his story is told in a series of flashbacks as his friends and colleagues discuss his life and talk, often with a bracing lack of sentiment, about his activities during those final months. I’ve read early reviews of Ikiru which describe the movie’s last third as a deep flaw: Kurosawa indulging in non-linearity for its own sake, after his hugely successful Rashomon. On closer examination, though, the strategy is consistent with the movie’s overall “Sit down and listen, I’m going to tell you a story” narrative, established right away with the use of documentary-style narration. The difference between the way Watanabe’s mourners interpret his actions and the way the movie viewer does is very important to the movie’s lesson, and the protracted wake scene, punctuated by critical flashbacks, is a brilliant way of getting it across.
This movie is a masterpiece. Kurosawa demonstrates his unrivalled breadth as an artist and storyteller, delivering a deeply serious fable with humour and urgency. Ikiru is really about something, and not shy to admit it.