Blog Directory CineVerse: A Japanese helping of carpe diem

A Japanese helping of carpe diem

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

Ikiru, a revered Japanese cinematic masterwork crafted by the legendary director Akira Kurosawa, was released in 1952 at the zenith of Kurosawa's illustrious career. The film delves into profound themes, from existentialism to selflessness to the importance of living in the moment, in telling the tale of Kanji Watanabe (played by the captivating Takashi Shimura), a government pen pusher who learns he has terminal cancer. Faced with his impending mortality, Watanabe embarks on a quest to discover purpose and leave a more lasting legacy before his death. Ikiru (Japanese for “to live”) astutely critiques the dehumanizing nature of bureaucracy while providing a poignant commentary on the human condition.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Ikiru, conducted last week, click here.

Several qualities elevate Ikiru to the highest ranks of world cinema. This work is distinguished by Kurosawa's exceptional direction and the superlative cinematography by Asakazu Nakai. Ikiru is cherished the world over for its visually striking aesthetics, featuring memorable scenes and images—especially the iconic shot of Watanabe on a swing in a snow-covered landscape.

Moreover, the movie is universally resonant. Despite depicting post-war Japan and being a foreign language film, Ikiru transcends cultural boundaries by telling a morality tale anyone can understand. It strikes a chord with global audiences by grappling with fundamental inquiries about life, purpose, and one's capacity to impact society. It’s continually lauded for its evergreen ideas and ageless societal relevance, emotional depth, and artistic excellence.

Ikiru is also a non-traditional narrative, playing like a pair of films in one, with two distinct parts. The first part focuses on Watanabe’s remaining days, from diagnosis through death, although we never see him die. Part two concentrates on the wake and the survivors’ memories and opinions of Watanabe, some of which are misguided and ironically incorrect, depending on your interpretation and point of view. Part one is concerned with reality: the truth of this man’s existence amid contemporary Tokyo, a setting showcasing consistent activity and movement. By contrast, part two is more static, illusory, and reflective. The camera and the characters are less kinetic as we focus more on a single setting, with flashback scenes interspersed. Part one emphasizes Watanabe’s actions and his corporeal self; tellingly, the first image we see is Watanabe’s X-ray, which suggests that his body and physical fallibility will be top of mind. The second part showcases Watanabe’s soul: his legacy and how he has become a catalyst for change and improvement in others.

It’s essential that the second half occurs after Watanabe’s death because we need to see that many of his colleagues are wrong in their assessments of him. These mourners have rejected the truth and missed the greater message: that it doesn’t matter what other people think, although it’s always nice when one person’s life positively impacts another life.

Interestingly, we aren’t shown Watanabe’s death, which one could argue would have made for a fitting ending to part one. Perhaps Kurosawa’s message here is that death is unimportant. We’re also not shown any specific moment where Watanabe is granted his wish of having the playground built. In fact, none of the flashbacks emphasize accomplishment—they all underscore persistence and commitment. You can take this to mean that Kurosawa is stressing that the act of trying to accomplish your ambition is at least as important as being successful.

Ikiru differs in significant ways from many of Kurosawa’s other pictures. It’s not a samurai period piece concerned with action, combat, plot, and multiple characters. It’s quiet, intellectual, contemplative, and deeply existential, as was Rashomon, his breakout film. Ikiru can also be interpreted as a comment on Japan’s reconstruction following World War II, and how it may be important to break traditional bonds to family, companies, and other social groups and pursue personal achievement instead. Ikiru’s aim might be to prepare its audience for the spiritual journey of personal transformation within Japanese society by promoting a perspective that incorporates Western notions of self, according to essayist Aryeh Kaufman.

Multiple meanings can be extracted from Ikiru. One of the most important messages imparted to viewers is that salvation, redemption, and meaning are achieved by doing. It’s a person’s actions, not their thoughts, intentions, or hopes, that truly matter. Furthermore, true happiness and meaning are not achieved through the pursuit of pleasure, materialistic gains, or creature comforts. Instead, fulfillment and joy can be found in work that is meaningful and enriching, and in personal creation—the drive to create something new and maximize the power of the individual. Catalysts that help transform Watanabe’s character include the discovery that chasing sensory gratification is empty and meaningless; the singing of “Happy Birthday,” which, in a way, is calling for his rebirth; and the rabbit toy, which inspires him to act—to get moving before time runs out.

The real tragedy, Watanabe’s story teaches us, is not death—it’s not living your life to the fullest and realizing your potential for making a positive difference in the lives of others. Ikiru, it can be argued, is more than a treatise on the virtues of being altruistic or selfless. It’s also a rumination on the importance of pursuing and accomplishing personal goals that can have beneficial repercussions for others.

Ikiru also stands as a testament to the inefficient and impersonal nature of bureaucracy, offering a critical examination of the bureaucratic machinery and governmental ineffectiveness during the post-war era in Japan. Watanabe's role as a civil servant in a city office exposes him to the frustrating complexities of red tape obstacles and indifference. The film vividly depicts the Kafkaesque nature of the bureaucratic system and the formidable challenges in effecting change within it.

Additionally, we are reminded of the importance of human connection after watching this movie. Watanabe's encounters with different personalities, such as a young woman he meets at a nightclub and a group of parents yearning for a playground for their children, serve as profound lessons in the significance of human connection and empathy. The film emphasizes how these meaningful relationships can offer a profound sense of purpose and fulfillment.

Similar films

  • Rashomon
  • 12 Angry Men
  • It’s a Wonderful Life
  • Drive My Car
  • Living (the 2022 remake)

Other major works by Kurosawa

  • Rashomon
  • Seven Samurai
  • Throne of Blood
  • The Hidden Fortress
  • The Bad Sleep Well
  • Yojimbo
  • Sanjuro
  • High and Low
  • Red Beard
  • Ran

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