Even the most casual of filmgoers have, in some way, shape, or form, heard of the name Akira Kurosawa.
The legendary filmmaker is still felt today in films both domestically and globally, having inspired people such as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas (shown here giving Kurosawa an Honorary Oscar). Of his films, Seven Samurai has got to be his most influential: it has been the inspiration for films ranging from The Magnificent Seven (the original and the remake) to Disney/Pixar’s A Bug’s Life. While I am still trying to work through his filmography (thank you Criterion Channel), I would argue the most moving film of his would be what he made two years prior to Samurai: Ikiru (which, translated, means “To live”).
As is the case with any great foreign film, it is both directly related to it’s country of origin (in this case, Japan) as well as being universal in appeal and relatability (most notably in the more recent Parasite). The film stars frequent Kurosawa star Takashi Shimura (who would later star in Samurai along with Kurosawa’s much more well known collaborator Toshiro Mifune) as Kanji Watanabe. He is a rather simple man, who has worked as a civil worker for nearly three decades. When the film starts, we are shown an x-ray of Watanabe, revealing (with the help of narration) that he has been found to have terminal stomach cancer.
Though he is not told outright that it is cancer (he is told it is a mild ulcer), a local patient reveals all Watanabe needs to know in order to realize his days are numbered, giving him only six to twelve months left to live. Rightly disturbed, he goes home, unable to tell his son and daughter-in-law the news.
The first of many realizations happens to Watanabe: He realizes that in all his years after his wife died when his son was a child, he has hardly lived. This leads him to go for a “night out” on the town, visiting bars, a geisha house, and a striptease (nothing graphic is shown).
It is during this time that we see him learning: It is not the night he thought it would be. Sure, there was some laughing, but it did not bring him to a sense of contentment he was truly seeking. The next day or so shows him spending time with a much younger woman who used to work with him (his son mistakes her as his father’s new girlfriend), though the old man is not looking for any form of romance. After explaining this to the woman (as well as why he has grown distant to his son and his somewhat domineering wife), he suddenly has a realization as to what he can do in his last days. Poetically, he leaves the restaurant as those around him are singing “Happy Birthday” (albeit to someone else).
Up to this point of the film, the main character reminded me somewhat of Phil Connors, the protagonist of Groundhog Day (1993). When Connors (Bill Murray) discovers he is doomed to stay on the same day, he takes it in stride, doing all he can to seek pleasure. Only as time passes does he begin to see things from a different light. The same goes for Watanabe (though he is a much kinder, simpler character than Murray’s was).
Throughout most of the film at this point, the mood has been rather somber and sad. This is most notable in a scene at a geisha house, where Watanabe requests the song “Life is Brief” to be played. Of the many shots of the film, perhaps the most heartbreaking and haunting is that of Watanabe simply looking into the camera as he sings to the melody (“before the crimson bloom fades from your lips”). Only a little past the film’s half way point (maybe three quarters of the way through) does Kurosawa (who also wrote the script) throw an amazing curveball.
We learn that, five months later, our protagonist has died. At his funeral, he is visited by officials as well as family members. We learn only through certain memories from these people about what happened in his final months. It is very reminiscent of the story telling device Orson Welle’s used in Citizen Kane: the point of view is not from the character, but from how people remembered him. What he did in those last months reminds me a bit of the parable of the shrewd manager (Luke 16), which also talks about someone who had to act under time constraints (though the manager was more dishonest than Watanabe).
This leads to the most famous shot of the film, where we see Watanabe on a swing set, after being told this was in the final moments of his life. He singing the same song as before. The only difference is that the words are not full of so much sorrow as they are filled with contentment. The sequence is nothing short of riveting.
Parents, when I say the film is for mature audiences, that is not to say that the film is filled with content unsuitable for children. In the English translation, there is indeed one F bomb, as well as the already mention striptease scene which is mild by today’s standards. I say mature audiences simply because it deals with themes of life and death that kids (at least those younger than teenagers) are more than likely not concerned with at this time in their lives.
In our current society, movies like Ikiru are ones that would certainly seem less appealing at first glance. Most people (even film lovers) don’t always have the patience for films to take their time in telling the story and lessons intended. Sometimes, people just want entertainment, something in the background.
Indeed, there are a good amount of films like this that are wonderful to behold, but there are others that require much more attention and thinking. Ikiru is one such film, one of the first I have actually felt like I am in a state of meditation as it plays.
It is proof that films are not just for watching, but for reflection.