Ikiru (trans: To Live)
Japan (1952) Dir. Akira Kurosawa
Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) has worked in the same public office position for thirty years, having never missed a day of work in his life. Watanabe learns he has terminal stomach cancer which hits him hard but has no-one to turn to – his wife is dead and his son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) and daughter-in-law only care about Watanabe’s pension for their inheritance. Watanabe decides to drown his sorrows and meets a man one night (Yûnosuke Itô), asking him to take him on the town although Watanabe soon realises this is not the right solution. Watanabe then meets up with one of his office subordinates, vivacious young woman Toyo Odigiri (Miki Odagiri) whose energy rubs off on Watanabe, inspiring him to do something positive with the remainder of his life, setting him on course to build a children’s playground that the local mothers have been asking for.
This is one of the few Kurosawa films from his “golden period” of the 50’s and 60’s to not feature the legendary Toshiro Mifune, yet he isn’t needed as Kurosawa’s other stalwart Takashi Shimura carries this film on his deceptively narrow shoulders. The storyline probably doesn’t seem too exciting since it has been the subject of many a yarn for years now but in 1952 this was arguably one the first films to tackle such a heavy and dour premise.
Shimura has that slight, world worn weariness about him that he is able to pull off the meek Watanabe who turns into a hunched shouldered ill man who re-evaluates his life after learning of his imminent demise. Kurosawa doesn’t hold back in his cynicism of bureaucracy from the onset as the local woman are passed from desk to desk at the public offices when looking at the building of a playground for the kids until they snap. When Watanabe decides to take on the project he too experiences similar frustrations with his superiors hiding behind red tape and other BS to avoid doing their jobs. Yes, even 60 years ago, bureaucrats were loathsome, self important abrogating gits. Without spoiling the ending there is one final dig at the soulless stampers which helps put a lot of the messages the film brings into perspective.
At 137 minutes this suffers from the slow pace of the period and may lose some modern viewers but the power of Shimura’s exemplary performance and the resonance of the story, which causes one to look at how they can do something positive with their lives when facing death, remains as potent as ever.
Perhaps this hasn’t aged as well as some of Kurosawa’s works but it still has a lot going for it even by today’s standards. It requires some patience but ultimately delivers something pretty rewarding.