As I watched Ikiru, Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed 1952 masterpiece, it became apparent how much this film has influenced the entire history of film-making, at least past its release. I recognized methods of storytelling, character arcs, and cinematography that I’ve been seeing in films for my entire life. I even recognized the plot arc of the first season of Parks and Recreation, which I certainly did not expect. That this is required viewing for anyone seeking a career in television or film is not surprising. What is unexpected is that a 2 hour film could open my eyes and make me appreciate my own life more.
I read once that thinking about death is key to being happy. This doesn’t seem intuitive at first as death is the last thing we want to admit. We are all immortal until we die. But thinking about death, as Ikiru would suggest, is the single greatest way to cherish life. In the film, the lead character, Kanji Watanabe, is a bureaucrat. He sits in an office all day stamping requisitions or forms or whatever useless thing those in bureaucratic positions do. The film’s narrator proclaims that Watanabe is dead, has been dead for years, and it’s believable. His existence is senseless, the flat look in his eyes soulless, and his every action is listless. It is only when he is diagnosed with stomach cancer that his routine comes to a quiet halt and he is forced to look at his life.
At this point, Watanabe embarks on a quest, first embracing hedonism, then trying to leech the art of joy from another, and finally finding a purpose for his own life. Each of these steps is a lesson unto itself. The hedonism does not fulfill him and only leaves him feeling worse. His vampiric approach is generous at least, but is not appreciated because it is misunderstood and in the end proven selfish. It’s only in the altruism and selfless drive he shows in the latter half of the film that we see the life in Watanabe reach its apex. In approaching death, he becomes alive.
It’s not difficult to say that I loved this movie. I doubt anyone who watches it with clear eyes and a will to see truth wouldn’t love it. When Watanabe cried, I too cried. Sympathetic responses notwithstanding, the performance of Takashi Shimura is so flawless that watching him in Ikiru means feeling every subtle emotion and nuance that he brings to bear. This is what movies should invoke in the watcher. I would never begrudge anyone for indulging in popcorn action flicks for I too have done so countless times. I make no secret of my love for Vin Diesel and the The Fast and the Furious family (it’s about family). But occasionally, no matter how hard it might be to face our emotions, and in Ikiru’s case to face death, I think we owe it to ourselves to stare it in the eye and feel once in a while.
The word ikiru means “to live.” The film Ikiru teaches us to live. This is no accident. But living isn’t always so easy. Few people begin their lives with knowledge that they will one day reach unhappiness. Who emerges from childhood hoping to trudge along in a joyless existence? Does anyone say to themselves, stepping out of those schoolhouse doors, “I want to do something boring for 40 years and then die!” Of course not. Life has a way of forcing an existence on us that we never asked for and that we don’t deserve. We need to survive before we can thrive. That does not, however, require us to lay down and accept a quiet, lonely existence. Ikiru is a lesson to look at life, and, yes we must survive, but we should never surrender the soul. There is life to be lived and legacies to pass on, and Kurosawa seems to be a prophet that we all could learn from. I may have called films masterpieces before, usually in jest, but I can unabashedly say that Ikiru is perfect. If I could watch no other film in my life, I am glad this was my swansong.