Akira Kurosawa's epic Samurai films are among the greatest movies ever made. But it is a quiet, intimate story about a very different sort of hero—a mid-level bureaucrat confronted with the futility of his own life—which may be the director's masterpiece. Certainly it is one of his most spiritual films.
Ikiru, recently released on DVD, is the story of Mr. Watanabe, the paper-shifting Section Chief of the municipal Public Affairs Department. For decades he has hoarded his money, his time and his affections until, with only months left to live, he discovers he no longer knows how to spend them. Played with wrenching vulnerability by Takashi Shimura, this may be the definitive portrait of a man who, examining his life, discovers that it may not be worth living.
The film opens with a stark X-ray image and the unemotional declaration that "This stomach belongs to the protagonist of our story. At this point, our protagonist has no idea he has this cancer." He shifts papers from one pile to another. He cleans his rubber stamp (using the cover page of a efficiency manual he created decades ago, when his job still mattered). He peers over his glasses at a young woman who dares interrupt the decorum of the office by laughing and telling stories. She will not last much longer in this sour, cramped place. But then, neither will Watanabe.
In a gorgeously choreographed sequence unbroken by a single edit, the frame crowded with people moving around a doctor's waiting room, "our protagonist" moves closer and closer to the camera as if to escape a fellow patient and his news that Watanabe's litany of symptoms amounts to a death warrant. Suddenly we cut to a distant perspective: we see this shrunken, frightened man sitting framed in a doorway, hunched and alone as the doctor calls his name. The contrast is stark, breath-taking, heart-breaking.
Henry David Thoreau remarked famously that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things," and the rest of this film is taken up with Watanabe's getting of wisdom, with his efforts to escape the mummified life he has settled for.
Director Kurosawa never called himself a Christian, and much of the spirituality of the film is distinctly Asian, with its themes of honor and shame, its emphasis on family and community over the individual, and its celebration of the ennobling power of "real work." Still, there is also something about Ikiru that is deeply Christian. Kurosawa was steeped in the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky, having just completed his screen adaptation of The Idiot—the story of a man who experiences the joy of being alive only when he faces a firing squad. Indeed, the direct inspiration for Ikiru is likely The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy—the other great Christian novelist of nineteenth-century Russia.
Once he learns of his condition, Watanabe spends a night in the company of his "good Mephistopheles," a conscience-stricken novelist who shows him the pleasures of the city. As Watanabe knocks back expensive saki, his guide (looking like a Japanese Tom Waits) proclaims to a skeptical bartender, "Ecce homo—behold this man. This man bears a cross called cancer. He's Christ. If you were diagnosed with cancer, you'd die on the spot. But not this fellow. That's the moment he started living. Right?" It's a sadly ironic moment: this pathetic Christ figure is a lost and desperate little man, drinking his way to an even earlier death.
Still, there is something prophetic in these words. Before the film is over we will see the frail figure of this prematurely aged man, bent in pain, resolutely making his way along a bureaucratic via dolorosa, a suffering civil servant whose passion leads him through the halls of Tokyo as resolutely as Mel Gibson's Jesus makes his way through the streets of Jerusalem.
"Ikiru" means "to live," and this is in every way a resurrection story: a simple man is desperate to find new life as he faces his own death. Silver screens have seen an abundance of carpe diem films; quirky stories like Harold & Maude and Joe vs. the Volcano, Peter Weir projects like Dead Poets Society and Fearless, and a spate of more recent films like Pleasantville, American Beauty and even About Schmidt. Christians are often drawn to these movies and their secular conversions: we find parallels to our own experiences of rebirth, the sense that "all things are become new." But as Frederick Buechner said, "The world speaks of the holy in the only language it knows, which is a worldly language." It's hard to get away from the fact that these parables of rebirth often end up looking like little more than apologetics for self-indulgence.
Like the protagonists of so many films, Watanabe yearns to "seize the day," to come forth like Lazarus from his tomb and reclaim his life. But this soft-spoken film is profoundly different from others when it shows what a man might do with his day once he seizes it, and in the rigorously unsentimental way it observes the effect of his decision on the people around him.
Watanabe discovers a hard road to a kind of redemption. It may be that he walks in the footsteps of Christ.
Notes on the DVD
Criterion is the Cadillac of DVDs: they release only the most significant films, working from best prints available and taking pains to clean up both picture and sound. The translation is far superior to the previously available Mei-Ah version: "Honestly he died in 20 years ago. Still alive, wanna to do something. But now the eagerness is no longer. This loses in … The busy body of the gov't." Thank goodness for Criterion.
The DVD includes a commentary from Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Prince's contribution is reveals many of the film's subtleties, though I did find his delivery terribly dull and quickly tired of the pedantic sociological analysis in the mix; there's a regrettable similarity to Ferris Bueller's history teacher ("Anyone? Anyone?"). There are also two very fine documentary features—an excerpt from the series "Akira Kurosawa: To Create Is Beautiful" dealing specifically with Ikiru, and "A Message from Akira Kurosawa (2000)," featuring interviews with the director on the set of his later films.
Talk About ItDiscussion starters
- The commentary track says the director "ends with the heavens, that emblematic image for him of those mysteries that lie beyond the finitude of human life." What things in this film have a spiritual significance for you?
- Isaiah 53 describes the Suffering Servant whose willing sacrifice will one day redeem Israel. How does this passage describe Jesus? In what ways is Watanabe like this, and in what ways is he different?
- How does Ikiru compare to other carpe diem movies like It's a Wonderful Life? How does George Bailey's despair near the end of the film compare to Watanabe's night on the town? How are their lives similar? Do both movies say the same things about the meaning of life?
The Family CornerFor parents to consider
This subtle, deliberately paced black-and-white film isn't likely viewing for younger audiences, who would probably find it slow-moving and its themes uninteresting. There is little in the film that's offensive, save a single use of the F-word (which could be avoided by turning off the subtitles around the 123-minute mark). Watanabe encounters prostitutes on the city streets, and gossips suggested that Watanabe has taken a mistress, but both details are treated with subtle discretion. There is one scene with an exotic dancer, tame by contemporary standards, and a considerable amount of drunkenness.
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