Ikiru (生きる?, "To Live") is a 1952 Japanese film directed and co-written by Akira Kurosawa. The film examines the struggles of a minor Tokyo bureaucrat and his final quest for meaning. The script was partly inspired by Leo Tolstoy's 1886 novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, although the plots are not similar beyond the common theme of a bureaucrat struggling with a terminal illness. It stars Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe.
The film has a 100% positive rating based on 30 reviews from critics at the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes.
Ikiru ranks 459th on Empire magazine's 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time. Ranked #44 in Empire magazines "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010.
Roger Ebert included it in his Great Movies reviews in 1996, saying: "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." In his Great Movies review of Seven Samurai Ebert called it Kurosawa's greatest film. --WikipediaI would like (but will choose to fail) to downplay the effect the film had on me, as too strong a review will only hurt other's chance of loving it as I did, but I was delighted by my experience of this film and overwhelmed (in a positive way) by its message...
"The best way to protect your place in this world is to do nothing at all":
I am reminded of what Edmund Burke the 18th c. political philosopher said, that "the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." I am certain that doing nothing in the face of evil is a crime, but what is it when good men do nothing in the face of living? Is it also a crime? Is idleness the devil's workshop? Or is doing nothing in the face of living just sad? (It is not lost on me that doing "nothing" purposefully can lead to insight and enlightenment as well.) I am not completely sure, but I am starting to realize how terrible it is to not at least try to live each day, to search for the light and turn ourselves to face it, to strive to grow though forward movement and doing!
"What would you do if you had only six months left to live, like him?":
And a sad story of a man who does nothing quickly gets more sad. Watanabe is shuffling through life—widowed and distant from his son—when he discovers from a doctor's visit that stomach cancer will soon take his life.
My father and I have had a discussion more than once about foreknowledge of death. He asks, "If the time and date of your death were stamped on your heal, would you look?" I have asserted always that I would. I am not sure of his answer, but suspect his interest lies more in how that choice is made, the effect of knowing the stamp is there more than the information itself. For me, not knowing something is a burning itch I struggle to not scratch. I value truth more than illusion, even if that truth is painful. I suspect knowing when my death would arrive would temporarily cripple me, but perhaps (I hope) would galvanize me to live more fully. Do we not get a second wind at the end of a race when we know where the finish line is?
"Because misfortune teaches us the truth.":
Watanabe meets a writer, full of profound ideas and intensity, and the two of them proceed to live wildly in a stumbling trip through Tokyo's nightclubs filled with women, drink, and song. It is a smokey and pleasurable adventure, although not sustainable.
When I was a junior in high school I visited five colleges on a midwest tour with my father. Notre Dame: too big. Dennison: too Greek. Wooster (my mom's college): too nice. Oberlin (my first choice): too "left". And Kenyon (my dad's college): just right! Everything from the feel of the campus, the visual aesthetic, and even the interview process (Oberlin's interview went so poorly I am convinced that had I applied, I would not make it onto even the large pile) fit like a glove...
"We only realize how beautiful life is when we chance upon death.":
The interview question at Kenyon was "If you found out the world was going to end in a few days what would you do?" What a fun question! I was a little tired of trying to put on a likable face by that part of our college trip and felt comfortable enough in the Kenyon setting, that I just relaxed conversationally and answered honestly. [There is a lesson there perhaps about trying too hard rather than just being ourselves, eh?] I told the woman that my first impulse might be to behave recklessly and party like there was no tomorrow, but that idea did not sit well with me. I would realize quickly that people around me would be panicked and sad, and that although scared, the world around us is still beautiful. So I would try to calm them down, tell them it would be ok, but to quickly move on to find the people that I loved the most and try to spend some last good moments with them. there would not be much time for fancy adventures, but plenty of time to just sit and talk and "be" with those we care the most about. She seemed surprised at my answer, and commented that she had been asking that same question all day, and that each student had talked about selfish things like driving fast on highways, or breaking things for the fun of it. She smiled and told me she thought my answer was thoughtful and nice. I told her my answer was selfish too, to be with people I cared about comforting them and being comforted by them would be the best way to cope with such a short end. To lose the world and life would be tragic and devastating, but with the right mindset, knowing the end was near might make those last moments so, so, sweet, as long as it was with the right people.
"Besides, It's time to buy a new hat to switch to a new self.":
Realizing that the fast life of Tokyo did not fill the hole in his lifeless gut, Watanabe tries to come to grips with his emptiness by attaching himself to youth. He platonically courts a young woman who seems to be filled with an exuberant joy of living. His lesson from her as he grasps and clings to her energy in the end is that he needs to find his own purpose, his own living.
And so I left my disenfranchised punk self behind in my high school days of Baltimore and embarked on the best four years of my life, adventures that led from that hilltop at Kenyon College in central Ohio: thriving in an academic playground, finding new fields of study, understanding the guidance of a mentor, finding love, working with the homeless, tempering my sobriety, finding my soul in Asia, and learning to express myself effectively. What a "new hat" I tried on in college. I worked for myself, and success snuck up on me when I wasn't paying attention to results, but rather, was just interesting in living. [Hmmmm, another lesson, perhaps?]
"The point is, the world is a dark place if his dedication was pointless."
"It is a dark place."
"But anyone of us could suddenly drop dead."
"We have to act like we're doing something but do nothing.":
Watanabe's colleagues grapple with his death and see in themselves the lack of purpose that he had also lacked for much of his professional life. They lament the darkness of the world, and drink, and bolstered their sadness and grief. They feel shame for their embrace of "nothingness," contrasted by Wannabe's last months where he lived for a purpose. In the end the men around him ARE changed and vow to sacrifice for the greater good of society.
If we see great people do great great things, and talk about how great they are, without changing ourselves, we are just drunks crying in our glasses. It is not enough to just try. We must do! Yoda's great admonition to Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back is "Do. Or do not. There is no try." I love the idea that we try new things, and we show up and "give it our best." This is doing. It is in fighting our inertia that trying is not enough; paraphrased: Shit, or get off the pot!
Turning to the light:
And so Watanabe did something meaningful for himself that improved the life of others around him, and affected still others who reflected on his efforts. He did not do it for recognition. While he worked, tirelessly in his illness that no-one knew about, he turned toward the light. He faced the shining sun and found life! He saw the world around him and became something more than he had ever been before. At one point when he is rebuked in his efforts, a subordinate pushes Watanabe to be angry. His response: "I can't afford to hate people. I haven't got that kind of time." As he moves quickly through his day he stops to look at the sky, the light pushing through the clouds, and remarks "How truly beautiful."
We all stumble. We all have those moments where darkness closes around us and we live in shadow. We have moments and perhaps years where we protect our place in the world by doing nothing. We all have moments where hate might seem like it could feel good. But the light is always there, the capacity to try on a new hat for our new selves is always there; and we do not need to be confronted with our impending death to see it; perhaps just a story of another who is, can compel us to live.
"Life is brief.":
Perhaps the most beautiful scene in the film comes near the end when we find Watanabe on a swing in a park—that for a select few, matters dearly—singing a song that he had sung while drunk in Tokyo's night clubs. It was a popular song in Japan in the nineteen-teens. It starts "Life is brief..."
The name of the film is Ikiru (To live) by Akira Kurosawa. It is a story about living in the face of death. The bookend usage of a song that is is about the brevity of life and which encourages us to love is fittingly beautiful and poignant...