I can't afford to hate people. I haven't got that kind of time.
I've lived this past week with different scenes of Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru running as nearly constant background loops in the theater of my mind. I've seen many emotionally affecting films over this past year's journey through the Criterion Collection and I expect that I'll see quite a few more in the years ahead - but I don't expect that there will be more than a handful that will hit as close to home with me... that will get me thinking I might be that guy who I'm watching on the screen up there.
Ikiru's impact on my consciousness was clearly heightened by the fact that just this week I was able to watch the film on a high quality video screen in the comfort of my own home. I'm now the proud owner of an HDTV and that will certainly improve conditions all around for further screenings. But my first look at Ikiru was on my old CRT, and my second was very early on a weekday morning on my computer monitor, before I went to work. Each viewing revealed new layers of meaning and application to my life, even when seen on those less-than-optimal surfaces. The third go-round, with the commentary track, on my new plasma just solidified my appraisal: this isn't just a movie to me, it's a revelation.
Ikiru is very much the work of a man approaching middle age and contemplating his coming old age and eventual death. Kurosawa says as much in notes that he wrote about the film. He was 42 years old at the time, feeling very full of life, with large ambitions of what he still had left to accomplish but realizing that he was approaching the halfway point of his life and now at an age when his existence could come to its end much more suddenly than expected, with the odds increasing every day that he might abruptly run out of time. That realization settled upon him as he was at the very peak of his creative powers. Ikiru was the 13th film of a career that would produce 30 features. He'd already released Rashomon, which vaulted him to international fame and lasting influence in the world of cinema. His next release would be Seven Samurai, arguably his pinnacle achievement, though many great films would follow over the next few decades. Ikiru itself is regarded by many as his finest work (it says so right on the DVD case!) but that's a matter of sujective taste of course, not an issue I'm going to weigh in on here. What matters most to me about Ikiru is what it says to us about life, about the choices we make for how we spend our days, and about how we allow ourselves to connect with others.
Ikiru (pronounced ih-keer-oo, not icky-roo, a Japanese verb that translates as to live) is the story of a man, Kanji Watanabe, who spent the last 30 years of his life creeping up the bureaucratic ladder until he arrived, some indeterminate time ago, at the esteemed title of Section Chief of the Public Works department. We learn (before he does) of his affliction with a terminal case of stomach cancer. After seeing a brief glimpse of his inert plodding daily routine, wielding his all-important official stamp as he sees fit on the endless flow of paperwork that crosses his desk and fills every nook of his work area, we witness his grim discovery of the illness, and the traumatic effects that its implications have on his long dormant self-awareness. Stunned by the imminence of his mortality, Watanabe is initially rendered speechless, retreating deep into his psychic interior, the only refuge available to him after spending so many years shutting out the rest of the world, operating from a protective, detached stance. His wife had passed away nearly twenty years earlier; his relationship with their only child, son Mitsuo, had deteriorated due to the father's emotional neglect and absorption into his career. A man without friends or confidantes, and ultimately without purpose, Watanabe is suddenly set adrift in society, recognizing that he's a doomed, drowning man and ready to clutch at whatever might give his remaining days a sense of meaning.
We follow Watanabe's wanderings over the first half of the film as he vainly seeks a way to break through the wall that's been erected between him and his son and daughter-in-law, who share the old man's house (but would rather share the inheritance they know awaits them on his passing.) Seeing no purpose in returning back to the empty routines of his job, he skips out on work without even bothering to call in sick, confusing his subordinates who marvel at nearly 30 years of perfect punctual attendance suddenly snapped without explanation. Instead of the office drudgery, Watanabe sets out to find whatever experiences of zest or vitality remain attainable to him. He makes acquaintance with a young writer, spontaneously choosing to divulge his illness. Impressed by the old man's fatalistic zeal, blowing wads of cash on expensive sake even as he knows it will only aggravate his illness and shorten his days, the writer views him as a Christ figure (a bit prematurely, as it turns out.) The two men plunge into the nightlife of Tokyo's entertainment district, running wild for a few hours as Watanabe gives release to 30 years of pent-up emotional needs and indulges in what he's denied himself for so long.
But their impromptu bacchanal can only yield little in the way of lasting fulfillment. After the initial burst of freedom, Watanabe discovers that a drunken spree offers just a temporary forgetting of his internalized pain, exposing the vast emptiness of the void when it's no longer possible to block out those thoughts. A pivotal turn (one of several epiphanies that Watanabe, and attentive viewers, experience in Ikiru) takes place in a piano bar, when the old man's croaking rendition of an old time love song drains the club of its festive atmosphere. It's a grim and utterly unforgettable moment as we see a glimmer of light enter Watanabe's eyes for the first time, a small spark of life that still must be fed before it can grow to the point of providing warmth.
Realizing that the loss of inhibition merely serves as an impostor for joy, Watanabe's gaze turns next to Toyo, a young woman who worked for him in his office, but has now quit due to her dissatisfaction with the stuffy atmosphere and oppressive grind of the department. Amazed to see her former boss strolling aimlessly on the street when he should be at work, she approaches him and is equally amazed to see his newly relaxed and self-effacing persona. They strike up a friendship, each intrigued by the unexpected entree into a life so different from their own.
But as much fun, novelty and interpersonal enjoyment as their new connection may provide, the serious differences and social obstacles that stand between them underscore the futility of anything that goes further than a casual, surface-oriented relationship. Watanabe, in his desperately infatuated state, has the harder time realizing that, and he pursues Toyo to the point that she's finally repulsed by him - not because he makes lecherous advances toward her, but because the profundity of Watanabe's realization and the depth of his stare into and through the abyss of Non-existence, is simply too intense for her to behold at her youthful, innocent stage of life.
Grabbing the toy bunny, an absurd totem that nevertheless points out Watanabe's way forward in this last gasp of a mediocre life, the old man staggers down the stairs and back out onto the street, a chorus of "Happy Birthday" sending off this born-again cancer victim to pursue his newfound purpose.
He returns to his job the next day, again surprising the underlings who were maneuvering into position according to the mandated line-of-succession, ready to slide their respective notches up the hierarchy. Watanabe's determination to get things done by setting his mind to it raises eyebrows and gets people wondering what got into the old man. But whereas most conventional films would dutifully unspool the events as we see the newly heroic codger go about his task, in Ikiru, Watanabe dies halfway through, and we're left to piece together the impressions that his last few months made on those who observed him, but never quite understood.
The narrative shifts, almost harshly, to the ritual wake in honor of Watanabe's passing, an assemblage of local political dignitaries (after all, the deceased occupied a semi-prestigious office, even if no one really understood or respected him as a man), co-workers and family members. Talk inevitably shifts to the remarkable events that concluded Watanabe's life, especially his peculiarly focused and unprecedentedly blunt efforts to turn a small patch of mosquito-infested cesspool (reminiscent of the fetid sump in Drunken Angel) into a neighborhood park. Disagreements over who should get primary credit for the achievement erupt as the influence of alcohol becomes more prevalent among the men at the wake - city officials opportunistically posturing and deferring the praise upward in pursuit of their own self-interests, diminishing Watanabe's role as prime advocate. Kurosawa mixes elements of political and social satire to puncture the hypocrisy of so-called public servants whose career success more often than not depends on their ability to obstruct progress and reap the material benefits of graft and corruption. The story's setting in democratized, postwar, reconstructing Japan puts the events in compelling context - Watanabe's park is not merely an aesthetic boost to the urban landscape, it's an important improvement to public health, especially for the children who live nearby - and a moral challenge to the supposed leaders of society who have the obligation to put the common interest above personal advantage. Watanabe's persistent struggles against obstinate and apathetic officials, greedy thugs who have more lucrative designs for the property, and even the rebellion of his own ruined body, are quietly depicted in a way that underscores the abilities we all have to make the small sacrifices that can add up to make a big difference for good.
These events lead up to the famous and memorable scene of Watanabe in his park on the playground swing, snowflakes drifting down upon his hat and shoulders as he quietly intones his theme song, an ecstatic moment that culminates his life's journey - for he would be found dead there the next morning by a local policeman. One man at his wake, a sensitive co-worker, seems to be the one person who not only put enough of the clues together to recognize Watanabe's due credit as the park's prime mover, but also realized the inherent challenge to conduct himself with that same sense of purpose and courageous dignity that he saw in the old man in those last days of his life. He's the man we see standing on the bridge, overlooking the park, pondering the task that he must address in his pursuit of learning what it means to live.
So what did I mean by thinking I might be that guy at the beginning of this review? Well, there are a few resemblances. I've worked for the same organization for 21 years now, and have moved up in the ranks over that span. I don't have an official stamp, but my signature does cause certain things to happen, and I have a few folks working under me that would almost certainly be interested in my job if I were to vacate for whatever reason. My work is ostensibly dedicated to the betterment of humanity (I'm a staff trainer for a non-profit social services organization) yet I sometimes wonder how much the system I work within puts our clients through the kind of runaround depicted at the beginning of Ikiru. The routines of my life and my basic temperament generally lead me to keep a lot of my thoughts and feelings to myself, especially when it comes to risking potential vulnerabilities with those I don't fully trust. In all of this, I don't think I'm so untypical, and I can just as easily point to a lot of differences between how I live and what I learned about old Kanji Watanabe. Doing so here would probably read as too self-congratulatory and in any case is irrelevant to me at the moment. My aim is to absorb the wisdom of Ikiru, and live within it as best I can in whatever weeks, months and years I am granted. Movies like this are the reason I spend so much time pondering the artistic and philosophic depths that cinema has to offer.
I'll leave you with this unique video mash-up I found of Radiohead's "No Surprises" and Ikiru footage referred to elsewhere in this review. It works best if you've seen the original first!
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