Kurosawa Centenary: Ikiru

[March 23 1910, legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa was born. To celebrate the centennial of his life, his prolific contributions to the world of cinema, and immense impact on the hearts and minds of those quietly mourning his absence, staffers at Row Three are (rather enthusiastically) taking this opportunity to share their own experiences of the Kurosawa catalogue]

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Having only seen three Kurosawa films prior to this tribute series (and not “getting” those as much as I would have liked), I embarked on my part of the series with as much a goal of discovery as of celebration. Because the films I’d already seen were all samurai films, I opted to watch and review one of Kurosawa’s contemporary-set films. Review contains some spoilers, but it’s a film that depends far more on mood and character than plot twists, so I don’t think it’ll matter too much.

“The best way to protect your place in the world is to do nothing at all. Is that all life is really about?”

The word “ikiru” translates as “to live,” and Ikiru examines what it means to really live, while also acknowledging the difficulty of actually making any difference with your life. Watanabe-san is a civil servant, the section chief for a bureaucratic city government who spends his days in a mountain of paperwork, always busy without ever accomplishing anything. The narration suggests that he’s been dead for nearly 20 years, because he just floats along without really living – he has no passion or ambition; he’s “worn down by the minutia of the bureaucratic machine.” However, when Watanabe finds out that he’s dying from stomach cancer, he has an existential crisis, experiencing flashbacks of his wasted life and punishing himself with sake (poisonous to him with his medical condition).

Two chance meetings offer him differing possibilities for how to really live in the time he’s got left. A man in a bar takes him out gambling, drinking, and into the red light district. The next day, he meets a young clerk from his office who is resigning her job because it’s so soul-deadening; her joy in life is infectious, and he quickly covets spending time with her – a desire that quickly spreads lascivious rumors though his intentions seem quite benign. When she tells him of the happiness she finds in her new job, he decides to throw himself into his work and really take responsibility for it – to do one really good thing with the position he’s got before he runs out of time.

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Ikiru is a very beautiful film, with loving long takes filled with humanity and emotional force. The scene in which Watanabe requests a bar pianist to play a 1910s love song called “Life is Brief” is easily going right up on my all-time favorite scenes list (especially in tandem with the reprise of that song near the end). It has such a quiet beauty to it, and captures all the elements I liked most about the film as a whole. I also appreciated the symmetry of the narrative, especially that the issue of the toxic pond that opens the film in a very funny and yet painfully true sequence of bureaucratic passing-the-buck becomes the issue that Watanabe takes in hand and sees to completion.

But I wasn’t wholly won over by the film, and it’s because of the extremely long section at Watanabe’s wake didn’t really seem to add anything to the film, and in fact, nearly diluted the personal triumph that Watanabe had made in finding something to care about, something to give him joy and a way to turn his drudgerous job into something meaningful for him and for the people he helped. I can understand if Kurosawa’s point was to establish that Watanabe really did make a difference in the world (not just to himself), and also to contrast with the bureaucrat’s continued inaction even once they praise someone who chose to act, but I still felt that section went on far too long and with far too much back and forth dialogue about it. I loved the flashback to him in the completed park, but again, felt that the film should’ve ended on this – it would’ve kept much more of the emotional drive that kept being lost cutting back to the city officials’ conversation.

“Even within a system where you can’t get anything done, and battling stomach cancer, Watanabe-san managed to do so much.”

Still, even with the amount of interest that the film lost for me in the final section, there was so much I liked about it, so many great scenes and a great performance from Takashi Shimura. I’m very glad I watched it, and I think I’m much more ready to delve into Kurosawa this time around than I was a few years ago.

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4 comments

  1. I am pretty much in agreement with you Jandy, this is one I feel like I should have enjoyed more than I did, and everyone else seems to clamor to its greatness, but its a bit too direct in what it is trying to do.

    existential despair is far better depicted in the various characters of Red Beard.

  2. I'm actually in agreement with both your sentiments…It's a lovely film in many, many ways, but falls apart for me a bit exactly where Jandy mentioned – the wake. I do feel I should watch this again though. i think I might approach it a bit differently being 1) older (sigh) and 2) more familiar with certain Japanese customs as well as styles of acting.

  3. Maybe I'm crazy and maybe it was because I watched this first when I was 16, but I remember being crushed by this movie. I'm going to have to revisit it.

  4. i'll jump on board the "it made me cry" wagon. this is probably my favorite Kurosawa movie.

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