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
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."
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.
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.
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."
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
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
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.
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
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.
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.