The kind of movie that lingers on in your head, just like the best fairy tales do.
The old man knows he is dying of cancer. In a bar, he tells a stranger he has money to spend on a “really good time,” but doesn't know how to spend it.
The stranger takes him out on the town, to gambling parlors, dance halls and the red light district, and finally to a bar where the piano player calls for requests and the old man, still wearing his overcoat and hat, asks for "Life Is Short--Fall in Love, Dear Maiden."
"Oh, yeah, one of those old '20s songs," the piano man says, but he plays it, and then the old man starts to sing. His voice is soft and he scarcely moves his lips, but the bar falls silent, the party girls and the drunken salary men drawn for a moment into a reverie about the shortness of their own lives.
This moment comes near the center point of "Ikiru," Akira Kurosawa's 1952 film about a bureaucrat who works for 30 years at Tokyo City Hall and never accomplishes anything. Mr. Watanabe has become the chief of his section, and sits with a pile of papers on either side of his desk, in front of shelves filled with countless more documents. Down a long table on either side of him, his assistants shuffle these papers back and forth. Nothing is ever decided. His job is to deal with citizen complaints, but his real job is to take a small rubber stamp and press it against each one of the documents, to show that he has handled it.
The opening shot of the film is an X-ray of Watanabe's chest. "He has gastric cancer, but doesn't yet know it," says a narrator. "He just drifts through life. In fact, he's barely alive."
The X-ray fades into his face--into the sad, tired, utterly common face of the actor Takashi Shimura, who in 11 films by Kurosawa and many by others, played an everyman who embodied his characters by not seeming to embody anything at all.
There is a frightening scene in his doctor's office, where another patient chatters mindlessly; he is a messenger of doom, describing Watanabe's precise symptoms and attributing them to stomach cancer. "If they say you can eat anything you want," he says, "that means you have less than a year." When the doctor uses the very words that were predicted, the old bureaucrat turns away from the room, so that only the camera can see him, and he looks utterly forlorn.
Kurosawa opens his story with a deliberate, low-key pacing, although at the end there is rage against the dying of the light. In a scene that never fails to shake me, Watanabe goes home and cries himself to sleep under his blanket, while the camera pans up to a commendation he was awarded after 25 years at his post.
It is not so bad that he must die. What is worse is that he has never lived. "I just can't die -- I don't know what I've been living for all these years," he says to the stranger in the bar. He never drinks, but now he is drinking: "This expensive saki is a protest against my life up to now."
His leave of absence at the office continues, day after day. Finally a young woman who wants to resign tracks him down to get his stamp on her papers.
He asks her to spend the day with him, and they go to pachinko parlors and the movies. She tells him her nicknames for everyone in the office. His nickname is "the Mummy." She is afraid she has offended him, but no: "I became a mummy for the sake of my son, but he doesn't appreciate me."
She encourages him to go see his son. But when he tries to tell him about his illness, the son cuts him off -- insists on getting the property due him before the old man squanders it on women. Later, on a final outing with the young woman, he tells her about a time when he was young and thought he was drowning. He says, "My son's far away somewhere -- just as my parents were far away when I was drowning."
The word "Ikiru" has been translated as "To Live," and at some point on his long descent into despair, Mr. Watanabe determines to accomplish at least one worthwhile thing before he dies. He arrives at this decision in a restaurant, talking to the young woman while in a room behind them there is a celebration going on. As he leaves, girls in the other room sing "Happy Birthday" to a friend -- but in a way they sing for Watanabe's rebirth.
A group of women have been shuttled from one office to another, protesting against a pool of stagnant water in their neighborhood. Watanabe becomes a madman, personally escorting the case from one bureaucrat to another, determined to see that a children's park is built on the wasteland before he dies. It all leads up to Watanabe's final triumph, seen in one of the greatest closing shots in the cinema.
The scenes of his efforts do not come in chronological order, but as flashbacks from his funeral service. Watanabe's family and associates gather to remember him, drinking too much and finally talking too much, trying to unravel the mystery of his death and the behavior that led up to it. And here we see the real heart of the movie, in the way one man's effort to do the right thing can inspire, or confuse, or anger, or frustrate, those who see it only from the outside, through the lens of their own unexamined lives.
We who have followed Watanabe on his last journey are now brought forcibly back to the land of the living, to cynicism and gossip. Mentally, we urge the survivors to think differently, to arrive at our conclusions. And that is how Kurosawa achieves his final effect: He makes us not witnesses to Watanabe's decision, but evangelists for it. I think this is one of the few movies that might actually be able to inspire someone to lead their life a little differently.
Kurosawa made it in 1952, when he was 42 (and Shimura was only 47). It came right after "Rashomon" (1951) and "The Idiot" (1952), which also starred Shimura. Ahead was his popular classic "The Seven Samurai" (1954) and other samurai films like "The Hidden Fortress" (1960), the film that inspired the characters R2D2 and C3PO in "Star Wars." The film was not released internationally until 1960, maybe because it was thought "too Japanese," but in fact it is universal.
I saw "Ikiru" first in 1960 or 1961. I went to the movie because it was playing in a campus film series and only cost a quarter. I sat enveloped in the story of Watanabe for 2 1/2 hours, and wrote about it in a class where the essay topic was Socrates' statement, "the unexamined life is not worth living."' Over the years I have seen "Ikiru" every five years or so, and each time it has moved me, and made me think. And the older I get, the less Watanabe seems like a pathetic old man, and the more he seems like every one of us.