Among Kurosawa’s films set in the twentieth century, Ikiru—which you can watch for free on Hulu this week—is probably the most widely seen and beloved. This soul-searching morality tale concerns Watanabe (the haunting Takashi Shimura), a widower and city worker nearing retirement who finds out that he has stomach cancer and must decide how to spend his remaining months. Though it was made only two years after the phenomenon of Rashomon, which put Kurosawa’s name on the art-house map in the U.S., it still took nearly eight years for Ikiru to be released here (in the meantime, the more exotic period films Seven Samurai and Throne of Blood, made after Ikiru,were distributed in the States). There’s little physical action, but emotionally, it’s tumultuous, and it’s one of Kurosawa’s most beautiful films, both in terms of the compositions of its images and the depth of its characters. In this short scene, marked by Kurosawa’s expressive camera work, meet Watanabe, at his most despairing after receiving the bad news.
“Sometimes I think of my death,” Kurosawa has written: “I think of ceasing to be . . . and it is from these thoughts that Ikiru came.” The story of a man who knows he is going to die, the film is a search for affirmation. The affirmation is found in the moral message of the film, which, in turn, is contained in the title: Ikiru is the intransitive verb meaning “to live.” This is the affirmation: existence is enough. But the art of simple existence is one of the most difficult to master. When one lives, one must live entirely––and that is the lesson learned by Kanji Watanabe, the petty official whose life and death give the meaning to the film.
As with TheDrunkenAngel and HighandLow, Kurosawa chose to break Ikiru in half. In the 1948 film, the reason was that he was tracing a parallel between doctor and gangster; in the 1963 picture, he was concerned with practice and theory (and illusion and reality) on a very large scale. In Ikiru it is important that the second half becomes posthumous, because much of the irony of the film results from a (wrong) assessment of Watanabe’s actions made by others after his death. Or, to put it another way, we have seen what is real—Watanabe and his reactions to his approaching death. In the second half, we see illusion—the reactions of others, their excuses, their accidental stumblings on the truth, their final rejection of both the truth and of Watanabe.
Perhaps for this reason Kurosawa insists so much upon the “reality” of the first half, and uses all cinematic techniques to make certain that we become absolutely convinced of this reality. Not that he insists upon the literal, far from it. He, along with the writer whom Watanabe meets, knows that “art is not direct.” Rather he uses a variety of styles (expressionistic, impressionistic, etc.) in conjunction with almost all of the techniques of which the camera is capable.
The picture begins with plain lettering, white on black (a bit like that of CitizenKane, which this film in more than one way resembles but which Kurosawa had not yet seen) and under it is what becomes the main musical theme of the film. It is a fugue or, to be more precise, a ricercare. Whether this (ricercare means to search for again, to hunt for, or to follow) was intentional or not, it was certainly a happy thought because this, after all, is what the film is about. The first scene is a close-up of an x-ray. We are thus shown Watanabe’s inside before we are shown his outside, and we are shown the cancer (literally) as defining the man. In the same way, throughout the first half of the film, we are shown his body and what he does; in the second half the body has disappeared and we are shown––through the conversation of others—his soul, what remains of him.
Like Sartre’s Roquent, like Camus’ “foreigner” (who also knows he is going to die), like Kafka’s Gregor and Doestoevsky’s Prince Myushkin, Watanabe discovers what it means to exist, to be—and the pain is so exquisite that it drives him, it inspires him. He conceives the plan that will save him, though in the simplest of terms it is a form of insurance against having “lived in vain.” He rescues the petition from certain oblivion and turns wasteland into a park. He has flung himself onto this one thing that will keep him afloat. He forces the park into being.
The meaning is that Watanabe has discovered himself through doing. Perhaps without even grasping the profound truth he was acting out, he behaved as though he believed that it is action alone that matters; that a man is not his thoughts, nor his wishes, nor his intentions, but is simply what he does. Watanabe discovered a way to be responsible for others, he found a way to vindicate his death and, more important, his life. He found out what it means tolive.
The office-workers (at least when drunk at the wake) seem to believe this. They are loud in their sobs of repentance and their praise of the dead (this wake is not in the slightest overdone—Japanese wakes are always like this: drunk, full of back-biting toward the deceased, to end in an orgy of praise and fellow-feeling around dawn) but––sober––they have forgotten their moment of truth. Only one—the one who first spoke up for Watanabe at the wake—remembers. He is reprimanded. He sits down, and Kurosawa has so placed the camera that he disappears behind his piles of papers as though he were being buried alive. He has—in his way—become Watanabe. And the final scene also suggests this. This clerk is on his way home. It is evening. Below the bridge where he stands is the park that Watanabe made. He stops and looks at the sunset just as Watanabe has in an earlier scene when he stopped, at the same place, looked, and said: “Oh, how lovely––I haven’t seen a sunset for thirty years.” It is as though this single clerk might remember Watanabe’s lesson—a man is what he does.
On the other hand, it is quite possible that Kurosawa would disagree with this interpretation of his picture. He certainly did not think of himself as an existentialist. Still, throughout his films there runs a moral assumption that has much in common with the existential thesis. The same thing occurs in Dostoevsky, a disaffiliate whom the existentialists have claimed, and it is telling that the Russian author should be the director’s favorite.
Of course, one of the fine things about Ikiru is that, like other great films, it is a moral document and part of its greatness lies in the various ways in which it may be interpreted. Here, as in the novels of Dostoevsky, we see layer after layer peeled away until man stands alone––though what the layers mean and what the standing man means may vary with the interpretation. Personally (as I have indicated) I think it means that man is alone, responsible for himself, and responsible to the choice that forever renews itself. This interpretation has never been better put than by Richard Brown, when he wrote:
“Ikiru is a cinematic expression of modern existentialist thought. It consists of a restrained affirmation within the context of a giant negation. What it says in starkly lucid terms is that ‘life’ is meaningless when everything is said and done; at the same time one man’s life can acquire meaning when he undertakes to perform some task that tohim is meaningful. What everyone else thinks about that man’s life is utterly beside the point, even ludicrous. The meaning of his life is what he commits the meaning of his life to be. There is nothing else.”
This piece was originally published in Donald Richie’s The Films of Akira Kurosawa, ©1996 University of California Press. This excerpt reprinted by permission of the author and the publisher.