I-The Cut: Ikiru
“Life is so short, fall in love, dear maiden, while your lips are still red, and before you are cold, for there will be no tomorrow,” Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), the protagonist in Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 existential masterpiece Ikiru, sings.
Ikiru means To Live and when Watanabe realizes he only has six months left, he decides to actually live.
This 143-minute movie is about a man’s journey through life. It is about an old man, who spent his days sitting idly behind a desk burdened by the weight of paper work and bureaucracy. Watanabe neglected his own life to raise a son alone after the death of his wife at an early age.
The son grew up and got married. Watanabe just grew old in a comfortable chair behind a routine job without even thinking about the meaning of life—or at least his own life.
The events of Ikiru are set in post war Tokyo, where people lead a simple life chasing after end’s meat, while others simply sit on their fat bottoms, in governmental departments, doing nothing worthwhile. Before being diagnosed with stomach cancer Watanabe was one of those people.
Shimura, who was one of Kurosawa’s regular actors, is brilliant as the man with an imminent meeting with death. All hope for him is lost especially after he realizes that he grew old without a wife, a companion and a lover.
Rashômon (In the Woods) (1950), Shichinin no samurai (Seven Samurai) (1954) and Yojimbo (The Bodyguard) (1961) are other Kurosawa movies in which Shimura acted in, and are worth the watch.
The richness of the dialogue is equaled with that of characters, especially the one’s surrounding Watanabe’s life, like his lazy and inept office colleagues, corrupt officials, his son and wife and Toyo, a young and jovial young woman working at the municipality’s public relations department that is headed by him.
Ikiru also stars Shinichi Himori, Makoto Kobori, Nobuo Kaneko, Nobuo Nakamura, Yûnosuke Itô, Minoru Chiaki and Miki Odagiri, as Toyo that Watanabe starts to fall for because of her energetic approach to life.
“You…just to look at you makes me feel better. It warms this – this mummy’s heart of mine. And you’re so kind to me. No; that’s not it. You’re so young, so healthy. No; that’s not it either. You’re so full of life. And me…I’m jealous of that. If I could be like you for just one day before I died. I won’t be able to die unless I can do that. I want to do something. Only you can show me. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how. Maybe you don’t know either, but, please. If you can…show me how to be like you!” with gaping eyes Watanabi asks the frightened Toyo, who is more and more becoming ashamed of the old man’s interest in her person.
The above dialogue is denotes the movie’s existential theme. At that very moment Kurosawa cleverly cuts into another scene, in which two young lovers are embracing, as Toyo watches them. Watanabe might have caught up with life but it was too late, however, not late to do “something” worthwhile and memorable.
Barrowing the traditional format of a bedtime story Ikiru opens with a narrator telling us what is about to happen to the unsuspecting old man, then switches to the inner struggle of that man and his day to day interactions with people, before it turns into a series of flashbacks about him, narrated by those who knew him, and noticed a change in his character and demeanor during his wake that takes up a major part of this inspiring movie.
Yûnosuke Itô’s character, the novelist whom Watanabe meets at a Sake bar, becomes the Mephistopholis that guide’s Watanabe’s Faust.
We are told from the beginning of the inevetibality of Watanabe’s death; and even though Ikiru is not a happy ending movie, it prods us into act and to do something worthwhile while we still exist.
Kurosawa’s edits are simple and are not flashy like nowadays movies; his transitions are no more than wipes, fades and cuts, produced on a normal speed and a smooth tempo like life itself. Watanabe’s speedy spiral into chaos and loss soon slows down when he finds himself pursuing the grievance of a bunch of women, who want to turn their neighborhood’s sewage pool into a public park so that their children, where their children can play and stay healthy.
Will he succeed in doing so after a lifetime of indifference and what will really happen after his death? To find out go rent the DVD of this complex hymn for life, and an earnest call, by one of Japan’s most talented directors, for one to pursue an actual life rather than waste away behind a desk and a position doing everything yet nothing.