Ikiru (Spine #221) is a 1952 drama from legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, starring Takashi Shimura and Miki Odagiri. Kurosawa is a favorite of the Criterion Collection, with over 20 films in the collection, including Yojimbo and High and Low.
With Ikiru, Kurosawa follows an old, decrepit bureaucrat (nicknamed “The Mummy” by his subordinates) as he navigates the search for meaning in life after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. After he dies, his colleagues discuss his legacy and what it means to truly be a “great man.”
Ikiru begins with the specter of death hanging over it. From the opening shots, the narrator informs the audience that Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), the protagonist, is “only killing time” in a dead end, soulless, government job. Day after day Watanabe stamps papers and scribbles things down, but he’s not really doing anything. As the narrator already informs us, he might as well already be dead. Soon after the film begins, Watanabe is informed that he has stomach cancer. His clock is set for six months to a year, and he realizes the job he’s held so steadily for thirty years has given him nothing. If anything, that job has manifested itself as the cancer in his gut. With that, Kurosawa poses possibly the most puzzling question in all of life/history/philosophy: What is the meaning to life? How can one find it?
Kurosawa is able to paint for his audience his grand philosophy to life by focusing in on a small, seemingly insignificant individual and finding a great, profound significance in him. Kenji Watanabe is a character who has spent his life in the futile trenches of city bureaucracy. His wife is long dead, his son thinks little of him, and the man never seems to stop to even buy himself a drink. He lives in a veritable haze of of hollow busywork all of the time. Logically, a stomach cancer diagnosis should be the end for Watanabe. Yet, the somewhat morbid fact of the matter is that being stripped of everything, being shown the quickly burning wick of his own metaphysical candle, is a blessing for Watanabe. At one point in the film, a man he meets in a bar tells Watanabe that “The best way to protect your place in the world is to do nothing at all.” Faced with a vanishing place in the world, Watanabe realizes he can now do anything at all. The corruptions, intricacies, and evasions of an almost Kafkaesque bureaucracy are against the man, but he’s able to persevere and give a kind of meaning to his life, because if he can’t, there’ll be nothing else. There is little quite like the tenacity of a dying man, and Kurosawa understands that here. But he doesn’t want to just shine a light on the persistence of the dead; no, Kurosawa takes the second half of his film to show that, despite the trite sounding nature of it, everyone should be living life as if they only have a few months to live. It is remarkably easy to sit in the stacks of forgotten papers and requests and just allow life to happen. After all, that is the best way to “protect your place in the world.” But what use is protecting one’s place, if that place is used to do nothing at all? Watanabe’s death scene is one of the most affecting and beautiful in cinema history. Watching Takashi Shimura’s sad, vaguely simian face tear up at the end of the film is almost too much to take. He sits on a swingset in a park he helped build and sings, watching the snow fall around him as the life slowly drains out of him. “It sounds like it should be in a play,” says one of the character’s of the old man’s death, and he’s right. It’s almost too poetic. Yet, what Kurosawa is hinting at is that the just and righteous do get poetic deaths. Watanabe was able to achieve a real peace at the end because he woke up and was able to do something about the world around him before his end came, and if that’s not worth some poetry, what isn’t?
Unfortunately, Ikiru doesn’t quite meet the standards of Criterion’s usually pristine transfers. While it’s understandably an old film and one can certainly imagine remastering the print must be unconscionably difficult, the Blu-Ray of Ikiru still appears quite scratched and weathered. It’s an unusual misstep from Criterion but a very noticeable one. In terms of the actual supplements on the Blu-Ray, there are two separate documentaries on Kurosawa and Ikiru in addition to an excellent commentary from author Stephen Price.
Ikiru is an emotionally affecting and thoughtful musing on mortality and meaning from cinematic master, Akira Kurosawa. It takes an age old theme, and expounds upon it in a way only great art can. Essential.
Film Grade: A
Criterion Grade: B