Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)


Takashi Shimura (Kenji Watanabe), Shinichi Himori (Kimura). Written by Hideo Oguni, Shinobu Hashimoto and Akira Kurosawa. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Rating: 12. Running time: 140 minutes.

Perhaps this is presumptuous, but after having seen only Rashômon and now Ikiru, I’m going to deduce the existence of what should probably be called the Kurosawian stare. It’s a stare that’s aimed at nothing in particular and implies solely a deep sense of dread and contemplation. It’s the look that all of those hearing of what happened in the forest in Rashômon give, and it’s the look that Kenji Watanabe in Ikiru gives for most of the film when discovering he has stomach cancer and only a year to live.

Don’t start thinking of something like The Bucket List now I’ve given you the general plot; don’t allow thoughts of excess softness and sentimentality to come rushing to your mind. Kenji isn’t stupidly stoic about death, nor does he have an itinerary of things he wants to go around ticking off with a smile on his face before resigning himself quite happily to the grave. Kenji becomes a haunted man, and the biggest cause of it is his realisation that he hasn’t done anything for his entire life. I’m guessing Kurosawa hadn’t read Marx, but Kenji’s a perfect study of alienation. He’s literally a rubber stamp, consenting to or rejecting forms in a Japanese bureaucracy for thirty years without pause. On the first day of his life in which he is no longer sleepwalking through it, he visits a bar and meets a man that sums it up perfectly: ‘Men are such idiots. They only realise life’s beauty when faced with death… you’ve been a slave to life; now you’re trying to master it.’ That is, indeed, Kenji Watanabe’s new aim, and eventually master it he does.

He tries out different things, determined to find something that pleases him and injects meaning into his final days, and after starting, naturally, with the hedonistic option of an evening partying in Japanese music bars, he eventually draws inspiration from a woman whose lust for life is at a level he knows he can only hope to replicate for at least some of his remaining days. She tells of the satisfaction she gains from working on and shaping toys for children, and suddenly he realises the potential that laid dormant in his job for all these years. Women had recently tried to use his office to get a reconstruction project going, to turn an old worn-down site into a joyful playground for children. He’d pushed them on by referring them to another department, and after being tossed back and forward they had given up hope. But now he sees the potential to finally do something good, and seizes the opportunity by fighting the bureaucrats above him, and getting that playground made.

It baffles his fellow workers. After his death, they contemplate what on earth had provoked him to be let loose on this existential rampage. But then soon they come to grips with the fact that they live as dogmatically as he did, and like that wise man in the bar had said, it was indeed only news of death that got Watanabe to live.

One Response to “Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)”

  1. 1 High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963) « jacob williamson | thoughts on film

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