Monday, December 14, 2009

IKIRU: a film by Kurosawa (1952)

Ikiru (to live) may not be the first foreign film I ever saw, but it's certainly the first one I remember seeing. I watched it over 40 years ago in a small movie theatre on the far north side of Chicago and now have viewed it twice since retiring several years ago. It was also several decades later that I discovered that it was directed by Kurosawa. Ikiru is just one of those films that I rent again and again. I'm now thinking about getting my own copy for my very small DVD collection. Christmas is coming....hmmm. Perhaps a subtle or not so subtle hint?

Watanabe learns that he has stomach cancer and might have six months to live. The shock of his impending death forces him to take a long clear look at himself. His son and daughter-in-law, who live with him, see him as someone to be used. They have decided to get their own apartment and have no qualms about asking Watanabe to deplete his retirement annuity to finance it. At work, his greatest accomplishment is having worked for almost 30 years without a taking single day of sick leave. That doesn't say much about his presence in an organization for three decades if the best one can say is that he was there every day.

Watanabe looks back and decides he hasn't lived and is going to make up for it now. He samples the night life of Tokyo and discovers this is not for him. He then tries to recapture his youth by associating with a young woman who had worked in his section, for he sees that she has youth and life. Perhaps she may influence him. This doesn't work either.

His third idea is to do something that would make a difference, one that would say he really had existed. It was then that he decided that he could make a difference--not by trying to become what he wasn't but by becoming what he was to the fullest extent possible. He was a public servant, but he had never really served the public. He had been a time-server, one who spent his days, like so many of his colleagues, doing his best to avoid doing anything but the minimum required to keep his position.

He remembered a problem brought to his section by a neighborhood group. There was an empty lot that was being used as a trash dump. It was unhealthy and dangerous for the children who played there for they had nowhere else to go. All that the people wanted was to have the place cleaned up and kept safe for the children. They had been getting the usual runaround--it was a problem for the parks dept--see engineering--see the health dept--see their local city council representative. Watanabe now decides to do something about it.

Warning: I will bring up important plot elements and the endings for both the film and Tolstoy's novella.

The second part of the film takes us forward to shortly after Watanabe's death. It takes place at the memorial for Watanabe, at which we see the deputy mayor, various members of the city government, the employees in Watanabe's section, and his son and daughter-in-law. We learn that, in spite of all opposition and with no help from any others, Watanabe not only succeeded in getting the empty lot cleaned up but also in having it turned into a park with playground equipment for the children.

The park has been so successful and popular with the people that everybody is now busy scurrying about, claiming credit for it, and dismissing Watanabe's own role. At the opening ceremony for the park, Watanabe had sat in the back row of the section for city employees and wasn't even mentioned by any of the speakers. All, including the deputy mayor, have forgotten their own initial rejection of Watanabe's plans and now insist that only the parks dept., the engineering dept., the health dept., or the deputy mayor's office could have been responsible for the park.

Kurosawa, in a stroke of genius, then brings in the people of the neighborhood, and their honest grief and respect for Watanabe provides the great possible contrast between them and the hypocrisy of the self-serving city officials and politicians. When I first watched the film, I focused, of course, on Watanabe and his struggles and accomplishments. It was only while watching it several days ago that I realized that Kurosawa had also strongly and effectively indicted the wastefulness and the indifference of the city government employees and officials.

Kurosawa had commented in an interview that Tolstoy's novella "The Death of Ivan Ilych" was the inspiration for the film. "Inspiration" is probably the best term for it certainly is not an attempt to transfer Tolstoy's novella to film. There are similarities: both Ivan Ilych and Watanabe Kanji are government employees--Ilych in the Russian judicial system and Watanabe in city government in Japan. Both learn that they have a short time to live, even though both are lied to by their physicians. Moreover, both are perceived by their respective families as obstacles to their families' happiness. And, both are forced to face the truth about themselves: they have wasted their lives in trivialities and the deadening routine of work.

However, there is a most significant difference between the two, one that may reflect differences between the East and the West.

Ilych's struggles after he realizes that he is dying are singular and solitary. He must accept that his life has not been a good life. His salvation comes at the end when he finally admits to himself that his life has essentially been a failure. Once he accepts this, he is able to die at peace with himself. His insight is singular, known only to himself, and affects no one else. On the other hand, Watanabe's salvation comes through helping others, by standing up for the people and getting the park built. His salvation benefits not only him but also the neighborhood residents and their children.

Does this difference suggest the more individualistic aspect of Western society and the group oriented Eastern society?

I'm not certain about this, for I sometimes wonder if Kurosawa had been "inspired" by two of Tolstoy's works--"The Death of Ivan Ilych" and Resurrection.

If one puts together the two stories, one then gets a much closer approximation of Ikiru. In Resurrection, Nekhlyudov, a nobleman, decides to help a woman whom he had, years ago, seduced and abandoned. She is in prison awaiting transportation to Siberia. He visits her, and, while there, is asked for help by another prisoner. He agrees and visits various government agencies where he is shocked to learn of the cruelty and indifference of the officials. On each subsequent visit to the prison, another prisoner asks for help, and much of the novel is spent following Nekhlyudov as he visits various government officials and discovers the extent of corruption and cruelty and indifference that exists. This is similar to the way Kurosawa portrays Watanabe as he goes from office to office and encounters, and therefore exposes, the same attitudes among various city officials.

I wonder if Kurosawa combined the death sentence and struggle for salvation found in Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych" and the attempt to right a wrong which results in exposing the indifference and corruption of high officials in various governmental agencies in Tolstoy's novel, Resurrection.

One last comment about the film: the most striking scene in the film is Watanabe, sitting on a swing in the park, with the snow falling about him, quietly singing his favorite song. While one character said that it was terrible that he should die there alone like that, freezing in the snow, it seems obvious that Watanabe himself chose this death, with his monument about him.

Overall Rating: One of the best.


  1. Fred,

    This movie sounds good. I wonder if the writer of the movie "After Life" was inspired by it for the "business man's memory" part of that film? I found "Ikiru" in my regional library system, but I'll wait until I return after the holidays to apply for an inter-library loan.

  2. Cheryl,

    I hadn't considered that, but it's possible. I don't see much difference between the small cogs in government and in the corporation, or in any large organization.

    Let me know what you think of _Ikiru_ when you get a chance to view it.