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On Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru

Rashomon is a total head case. Ikiru is a spike to the heart.

Photo: Toho Co., Ltd.

Ben begins: After I watched Ikiru, I couldn’t sleep. Literally could not sleep. The film wrecked me. Wrecked me good. The next day I sought intellectual sanctuary from the overwhelming emotional damage I was experiencing. But the excellent historical and analytical commentary in the Criterion special features was no help. I was depressed. The film depressed me. For a number of days. And here’s the thing. What depressed me was the hope in it. So faint, so fragile, so dignified…so sad.

That was some years ago and looking back on it now, I challenge anyone reading this to come up with higher praise for a work of art. This is not to revel in an adolescent “emo” celebration of the feeling of being devastated inside. This is maturely to acknowledge the phenomenology of personal feeling as such. To be so profoundly affected by a work of art, whatever the feeling, this is a gift that isn’t often given. It is actually extremely rare, truly precious. So the first thing I have to say about Ikiru—and ultimately to Kurosawa—is thank you.

I tendered my review at the time in order to initiate my own therapy. I had seen and reviewed Rashomon immediately prior to viewing Ikiru. So I initially staked out a claim on my mental health by the tried and true tactic of comparison. What follows with respect to this is a revision of my position back then. Then, I only tentatively suggested that Ikiru should be ranked above Rashomon. That was just a crippled critic barely talking. Today I do not tentatively suggest this—I state it plainly.

Rashomon is a total head case. Ikiru is a spike to the heart. Certainly this is a vulgar oversimplification. Even so, Rashomon resonates morality secondarily; strongly, very strongly, but ultimately as an epiphenomenon of the epistemological study at the center of it all. And it is very much a study, an intellectual exercise, almost an academic investigation. It is authentically situated socially and this contextualization is what allows it to be genuinely ethical too. Still, Rashomon is first and foremost a sort of mental chess game about the relativity of truth. It’s a film for lawyers, if you will, and the impression that all is sophistry is only erased by the ethical redemption that inexplicably and perhaps unconvincingly occurs at the very end of the film.

Ikiru, on the other hand, is a shotgun blast of existential desperation. It is suffused with moral anguish that seeps from every pore. Eventually this takes on an overtly politicized expression. We are deep into Camus territory. Not just the Camus of The Myth of Sisyphus, the Camus too of The Rebel. The singular person isolated in the universe, confronted by the sheer fact of personal death, is ground zero. Thus, the point of departure is itself the destination; let’s just call it, shivering naked unto darkness. This is gut level. To be or not to be, and by the way, whatever.

And yet, Ikiru enters into the question that remains to confront the individual who paradoxically rejects suicide in order to die freely: What is to be done? Action, some action, must be taken. The sadness and loneliness of Ikiru are inescapable and difficult to bear. But an action is taken. Not just a gesture, not just symbolically—real political praxis. This independent, practical, contribution to the commonwealth, this private act that comes into being as a public Good, with a capital “G”—this is what makes the film sublime.

At the end of Rashomon, when the woodcutter adopts the abandoned baby, the monk thanks him for restoring his faith in mankind. Clearly, Ikiru doesn’t even come close to handing us this ice cream cone. with its triple scoop of idealistic virtue. Ikiru is bleak man. But it is against this black canvas that one stroke of white paint stands out as so much bright light. Watanabe does build the park. He does! And we do get to see children playing in it. When he has the epiphany that he can do something, the other people in the restaurant sing “Happy Birthday” in an incidental scene, but it is clear, Watanabe is born again. Kurosawa alludes to the tune in the background music later on as well. The man ends his life on a swing, a happy child…for just the briefest of moments. He dies with the Zen wisdom of one who “doesn’t know any better,” doesn’t know that “it can’t be done.” Hence, he got it done.

Not alone though. The Camus interpretation of Ikiru—like Camus’ political philosophy generally—is only so illuminating. I won’t go so far as to suggest that Ikiru is a socialist film with obvious class consciousness. But I do want to point out that Watanabe’s activism does not confirm any sort of liberal atomistic view of society. It does not take place in a social vacuum and Watanabe is no solitary Christ on a cross. The long wake scene—almost a film in its own right—is by itself a scathing satire of fellow-feeling subjected to hierarchical management, compassion in the service of career advancement. Placed in the film as a whole, the scene builds on the exposure of the ineffectual procedures and hypocritical policies of the government. That the film presents a critique of the civil service and public institutions in the supposedly “new” Japan of the post-war period is impossible to miss. That this reconstruction of Japan is under the thumb of US imperial design is not as plain, but still evident. When the women finally complain after being given the bureaucratic run-around that they are not going to be bamboozled by bogus “democracy,” they are turning the American ideological warfare bombarding them against itself.

And speaking of these women, they are not trivial in this film. In fact, the role of womanhood is serious business throughout. If it is reasonable to put Ikiru into any sort of socialist focus, this could only be seen by looking through a feminist lens. The dead wife, the girl who quits the office, even the dancehall whores—but I will confine myself to the community mothers in relation to Watanabe’s existential/political turning point. They are a unified collective. They have social consciousness. They bring a practical problem forward and in doing so, they give Watanabe the opportunity to actually do something with his life. Their solidarity gives him a second chance. What is more, the women truly acknowledge him. They are the benefactors of his life’s work and to this they are his witnesses. They really did come to know Watanabe and they genuinely mourn his death at the wake. He is not an unknown soldier. They will tell their children who built the park.

Ikiru is a monster artistic achievement. If asked to select one and only Kurosawa film as definitive of his entire oeuvre, I would select Red Beard. But Ikiru is the masterpiece that also had to be made and had to be made first in order for the artist to create his definitive work. Be this as it may, Ikiru is my personal favorite. And if asked to select one and only one scene from Ikiru as definitive of the whole film, I would reject the assignment, especially considering Criterion screwed up this time by putting it on the outside of the DVD case. Be this as it may, my “favorite” scene is of Watanabe standing alone in the street, beyond despondent, with all of the noisy urban commotion going on around him. Kurosawa completely turns off the audio track momentarily. There’s not a sound. For an instant Ikiru is a silent movie. And the image on the screen is absolutely heartbreaking.

And Dan:


The film starts appropriately enough with the shot of an x-ray, for with Ikiru, Kurosawa plans to peer into the dark heart of post-war Japan’s fear and loathing. The cancer eating at the gut of Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), the film’s protagonist, is clearly symptomatic of a systemic illness that has struck Japanese society. As Stephen Prince points out on the Criterion disc of Ikiru, given the film’s rather savage critique of conditions in post-war Japan, it could not have been made even six months earlier, when all productions needed governmental (and American) approval. So, it is something of a minor miracle of timing that Ikiru got the go ahead; beyond that, Ikiru is something of a monumental achievement in filmmaking.

You won’t go so far as to suggest that Ikiru is obviously a socialist film. Well, it is true that as a younger man, Kurosawa flirted with Marxist politics. If it takes a village to raise a child, it takes a community to build a playground. Sure, you could take the Capra-esque position that good things happen in Ikiru because an ethical individual won’t allow a moribund system to prevent them from happening. But the film also anchors us in the social reality that there is an entire community of people out there who want good things to happen, and will not rest until it is so. So, if not strictly socialist, Ikiru is still rooted in the notion that collective action is essential in matters of social change. As for the hausfraus, you are definitely onto something, as they are a vital humanizing influence on this faceless bureaucracy, as well as the conscience of this fractured community.

The structure of the film is fascinating, when taken from this vantage point. In the film’s first half, we watch first hand Watanabe’s response to the news of his impending mortality, and he is not exactly gracious in acknowledging this defeat. He is at turns morose and pitiful, indulgent and angry as he drinks, sings and whores his way around Tokyo. However, the film takes an interesting turn upon Watanabe’s death at the half-way mark. Somewhat surprisingly, we learn second hand, through a series of flashbacks, that our hero enjoyed a change of heart and dedicated himself to a cause. And he does not take up just any old cause; it is the aforementioned cause of the housewives, the community’s conscience. In the end, Watanabe finds meaning not by indulging his grief, but by moving outside of the personal (his death) and into the political, the communal (his tenacious pursuit of a children’s playground.)

The film’s structure reinforces this message. In the first half of the film, Watanabe is immersed in his own misery; he cannot seem to find meaning in anything. He is part of the problem, as his foot dragging is symptomatic of the entire moribund bureaucracy, and guarantees that nothing will ever get done. However, when Watanabe’s story unfolds through the stories of members of his colleagues in the film’s second half, we see a man who has found purpose through public action. The community informs us that Watanabe did not remain wallowing in the knowledge of his death; instead, he used that knowledge to spur his commitment to do some good for the people of his community. It is easy to see why he is one of Kurosawa’s favorite actors, as the craggy-faced Shimura gives a performance, which by necessity covers the waterfront. It is one of cinema’s finest.

Therefore, the film must be seen to have small moments of hope. While it is tempting to get all cynical and remember that all the bureaucrats backtrack on their promises to become more involved and constructive in honor of Watanabe’s memory, one of them does stop to look at the playground. One does remember him. And yes, certainly, the women will carry on his memory through their children.

Still and all, the film’s iconic image—of Watanabe on the swing—is just so awesome and beautiful that, years later when you think back on the film, you will almost forget that this is one of the saddest movies ever made.

Then Ben:

Yes, one of the (minor) bureaucrats does stop on the bridge to look at the playground. It is the same guy who most sincerely spoke of Watanabe’s achievement at the wake and who later attempted to do something on the job, momentarily challenging the authority of the new supervisor. But this outburst comes to nothing. And it is after this incident that he is shown on the bridge with the sunset Watanabe discovered again behind him, watching the children in the park. Of course, it’s ambiguous. But for me, this individual does not represent hope. All I’ve got is the mothers. And their kids, especially the kids.

And Dan:

Don’t give up on that bureaucrat! At least he has a conscience, which distinguishes him from most around him.

Then Ben:


Yes, he has a conscience. And he once tried to take action. But will he try again? He’s no Watanabe. (He’s not even a wannabe Watanabe.) But he can hardly be blamed for this, what with Watanabe being something very close to a saint. Which brings me to an analytical and even slightly critical consideration of how his character is revealed to us in the film.

I have already touched on the long wake scene pretty much being a little film in its own right. But the way it works in the film as a whole is even more remarkable. We never see Watanabe doing his good deed, we hear about it after the fact from others. Hence the tremendous impact of seeing him one last time at the end of the film. The return of his image is a visual coda that feels like him coming back from the dead. Naturally—no, almost supernaturally—this seals the deal on his reputation for having walked in the footsteps of Christ while he was alive; for devoting himself completely to a work of charity; for performing an act that is best understood as a minor miracle.

Minor miracles are the same as major miracles, however, when subjected to realistic scrutiny. We never see Watanabe taking care of his saintly business because it is highly improbable that he would have been able to take care of even basic business. In his special features commentary, Stephen Prince points out that one of the great strengths of Ikiru is that it fundamentally avoids what Hollywood turns into a sensationalistic orgy—the explicit demonstration of the physical agony of the terminally ill central character. This is correct. For the most part, we do not see Watanabe suffer physically. Prince is astute but at the same time, this is the unrealistic aspect of the film. The banal truth is, Watanabe would have been too riddled with pain or too doped up and way too weak from his disease to walk down the street for a coffee and a slice of pie, never mind lead a small revolution.

Let’s call this unbelievable solitary stoicism the return of Camus at the hard core of Ikiru. Or if you prefer, it’s the poet Kurosawa doing what he is licensed to do. Either way, though, Watanabe is an unrealistic character insofar as his suffering is invisible to others until well after the fact. No, his suffering is not absolutely private. He does make it known to the girl working in his office and to a total stranger as well. But this happens before we learn of his missionary work, before we know of his conversion, before we are sure that here is a man who will follow the highest ethical calling before he dies. In short, it doesn’t count because he has yet to become a martyr. In the wake of his death, he undergoes veritable canonization. And we in the audience can only accept this mythology about the man because we have been denied access to a candid telling of his complete history; no doubt (and alas) featuring in the end a hospital bed and significant palliative care.

Kurosawa does not face this realistically in Ikiru. But no worries. For he looks it straight in the eye in his definitive work, Red Beard.

And Dan:

Why Ikiru avoids a realistic depiction of Watanabe’s physical deterioration is a question worth exploring, for it certainly does render his final acts more miraculous than realistic. Further, you refer to Watanabe’s “solitary stoicism” as a key aspect of the character’s unbelievability during his transformation from piteous self-involvement to admirable community-mindedness. Simply put, Watanabe would be suffering unendurably during his crusade, and we are kept at arm’s length from this. It certainly defies the tenets of realism to believe that he would have been capable of such a determined effort while enduring this disease’s final stages of suffering.

This is all true. Of course, the counter argument, as suggested by Prince, is that there would be a very real danger of slipping into melodrama while attempting to depict a character getting all these things done as he struggles with the debilitating effects of cancer. And so I understand Kurosawa’s reticence here, because there are certainly moments during the wake when matters edge a little bit too closely to soap opera excess. It wouldn’t have taken much to push the film over the edge, so considering this, I will grant the filmmaker some latitude.

Further, Watanabe’s character presents a difficult conundrum for Kurosawa at this point. If he presents his protagonist’s physical deterioration honestly, his accomplishments would seem beyond belief, verging on the superheroic, which would have destroyed the film’s often meticulous verisimilitude. Yet, keeping Watanabe’s terrible pain largely to himself leaves Kurosawa equally open to charges of implausibility. All of which is to say, I’m torn about this aspect of the film. It is a Hobson’s choice I am glad I did not have to make. I will say that the film we are left with is devastating; I am not sure if any other ending would have had the same effect upon me.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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