Free Film School #86: This Is @#$%ing Ikiru

Professor Witney Seibold devotes an entire column to Akira Kurosawa's 1954 masterpiece, which you are required to see.

Witney Seiboldby Witney Seibold

I once called Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru the best film ever made. Looking at it again, I am in no position to argue with myself. Ikiru is the kind of drama that is meant to inspire rather than merely move. This week's Free Film School will be a little different, as I will merely wax rhapsodic about a single great film. The film is not necessarily groundbreaking from a technical level, and it certainly doesn't introduce audiences to any new story conceits. What it does do, however, is extraordinary, and I will explain why below. At some point, I will devote a lecture to Kurosawa himself, and his film Rashomon will also warrant a definite look. To start with, though, I'm going to examine – more like rhapsodize – about the film I consider to be his masterpiece.

“An unexamined life is not worth living”

                              – Socrates

Mr. Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) lives an unexamined life. He works as a salaryman at a large, labyrinthine bureaucracy. He is quiet, polite and still. He takes papers from the stack on his left, stamps them, and moves them to the stack on the right. His office is choked with carefully organized piles of red tape. His co-workers don't talk to him, and spend their days deflecting the requests of the public. Mr. Watanabe has been doing this for 25 years. Mr. Watanabe has stomach cancer, and will die soon.

Akira Kurosawa's 1952 film Ikiru is one of the most touching and philosophical of the master's works. It deals not with a sentimental and manipulative plunge into the futile sadness of a man's wasted life (too often in modern film is cancer used as a plot device), but bothers to actually explore this philosophy of human mortality, and the urgent, crushing need one feels to leave a mark in this world. This is a film that doesn't just have a simple, easily digestible message to vanish a few moments after leaving the theater, but a mode of thinking one should apply to life. Mr. Watanabe plumbs the depths of his futility and loneliness, and, in a gorgeous fit of resolute defiance, chooses to exploit the powers he has to make some kind of mark, however small.

The tragic stories are not of sad people suffering, but of good people going unappreciated.

Mr. Watanabe does have a family in the form of his son, Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko), who, like the selfish children in the films of Ozu, has little appreciation for his father, and berates him as a befuddled old man, capable of little more than providing property for him. When Mr. Watanabe attempts to tell his son of his terminal disease, the son deflects and interrupts, and complains that his father release some of his inheritance. That he's being selfish. Oh, the delicious irony.

Mr. Watanabe does not know how to live properly. He takes out all his savings, and attempts a few evenings of drunken vice; the lifestyle he has always heard is supposed to be celebrative and reckless and indicative of one's last few days on this planet. He tries some expensive sake, but doesn't really like it. He drinks anyway. “Drinking this expensive sake is like paying myself back with poison for the way I lived all these years.” He is eager to plunge himself into prodigal oblivion, but does not have the constitution – indeed he doesn't even have the know-how – for such a maneuver. He asks a stranger (Yunosuke Ito) to show him the tow, and they go to strip clubs, pachinko parlors and alehouses, all in search of the ineffable vivacious disconnect from the world, but still it eludes him.

In one of the film's best scenes, Mr. Watanabe goes to a jazz parlor to drink and listen to music. He asks to hear one of his favorite oldies, “Life is Short, Fall in Love Dear Maiden.” The piano player is game, and begins to skillfully churn out the melancholy old tune. Mr. Watanabe sings along, his face frozen in contemplative solemnity. The club did not cheer him, but he managed to broadcast his difficultly unexpressed hopelessness into the world for a brief moment.

Mr. Watanabe meets a young woman named Toyo (Miki Odagiri), who works in his office. She is giggly and rambunctious. Toyo serves as the key his redemption. She is presented, briefly, as a potential love interest for Mr. Watanabe (and that's clearly how Watanabe's son begins seeing her after hearing about her), but Toyo is no mere escape into the face of beauty (á la “Death in Venice”). She is a person who instinctively lives the life that Mr. Watanabe has always coveted. In one of the most skilled scenes of the film, Toyo and Mr. Watanabe have dinner at a restaurant, while, in the background behind them, a birthday party is being celebrated. Toyo confronts Mr. Watanabe about his intentions, and he has a catharsis right in front of her. She is actually frightened by the man's sudden turn. As he exits the restaurant, the party behind them start singing “Happy Birthday” for the guest of honor. This is clearly a rebirth for our hero.

“You've never taken a day off, have you?”

“No. Never.”

“Do you feel you're indispensable?”

“I don't want them to find out they can do without me.”

                                – a joke told in Ikiru

Then Kurosawa does something unexpected and, frankly, stylistically bold. He cuts immediately to Mr. Watanabe's funeral, attended by all his stuffed-shirt co-workers. They begin talking about how much of a tragedy his death was, and how much they'll miss him. We sense, though, that these are empty platitudes, sparked by necessity, politeness, and no small amount of sake. Politeness and red tape, if my cultural education gleaned from cinema is at all accurate, are pervasive elements of Japanese society.

The co-workers then begin to talk about some of Mr. Watanabe's odd habits over his last few months alive, and they begin to ponder whether or not he knew if he was dying. And why was he charging about the bureaucracy, filing papers, asking for favors, and insisting on such strange things? Who were all those middle-aged housewives trailing after him? Surely he knew what was going on.

It's not long before the co-workers are wailing in drunken sadness at not only the quiet heroism of Watanabe's final months, but in their own stagnant abilities to squeeze living out of a job built on structure and frustration. This weepy scene may strike certain audiences as over-the-top, and perhaps a bit preachy (indeed, that's how I felt the first time I saw Ikiru at age 18), but, upon revisitation, I think I began to clearly see what Kurosawa was getting at: He was making a comment on the co-opting of death. When someone dies, Kurosawa seems to be saying, we compile, in our minds, the grandness of their lives; we tend to turn the dead into heroes. This is the decent, natural, and respectful thing to do. But, Kurosawa feels, the fashion in which we do so – especially for the people we don't know well – tends to ignore the personal triumph they went through. It's all well and good to be praised as a hero. It's far more impressive to touch others while still alive, and actually feel like a hero.

What was Mr. Watanabe's heroic deed? Something small. He built a playground. He devoted the last few months of his life slashing through the red tape, and building a playground in a disused part of town, where there was previously a fetid pool of diseased water. In a society where red tape is at the fore, the post-war paranoia has people eager not to stir the waters or induce dramatic change, and dealing with the closed-off stuffed suits behind the desks of a dozen different city agencies is an unfortunate part of daily life, actually using one's know-how and tenacity to accomplish something actually comes across as a heroic task.

Ikiru is a film about philosophy and living and inspiration, but it is not preachy, cloying, or obvious. It is intellectual without being dry. It is emotional and hugely dramatic, without being melodramatic. Kurosawa's skill was in making films that were philosophically perfect, and technically proficient, without blocking our view with his ideas, or with his craft. Most modern films are melodramas with easy tidbits of idea thrown in. They profess to take place in the “real” world (indeed, most audiences lambast a film if it is not “realistic”), but clearly are dramatic fantasies. Ikiru is one of those movies that is melodramatic in stretches, but is so emotionally honest, and so gut-punchingly, philosophically true, that it approaches perfection.

What does it mean to live? Is it to help others? Is it to fall in love? Or is it, as Kurosawa seems to be saying, to live life passionately? With humility and purpose? With a simple, calm functionality, or with a resolute, stern passion? Ikiru is a touching film that not only manages to make one weep with his heartrending and calming tragedy, laugh with its gallows absurdity, and sit in awe of a masterful artwork, but proposes a new philosophical life of passion.

It's been suggested that Ikiru does not merely impart lessons, but is intended to inspire people to live differently. Kurosawa was not interested in platitudes or mere storytelling. He was able to, seamlessly, integrate a way of living into this beautifully tragic drama. It's rare that any film does this, and rarer still when a film does it well. Ikiru does it well. It's a film to move, to inspire. Building a swing set in an overcrowded part of Tokyo may not be “large” in the historical sense, but, to the people who could see the power of our hero's drama, it is the largest thing in the world.

Mr. Watanabe sits on a swing set, singing quietly to himself. His heroic tasks were small and grounded in the everyday. His life was not pathetically transformed by the love of a beautiful woman (couldn't you just imagine the guy on his knees in front of Toyo, declaring his love, only to have her reject him? What a melodrama that would have been), but he has shifted in his mortal coil. We have seen a man grow from a half-dead Mummy, into a grand soul. The snow gently drifts to the ground. “There will be no tomorrow,” he croons. There won't be. But he is at peace. Real, palpable peace.

Homework for the Week:

Watch Ikiru. Did it inspire you? Do you think films are better if they are about a philosophy, or do you prefer stories and characters? 

Witney Seibold is a featured contributor on the CraveOnline Film Channel, co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and co-star of The Trailer Hitch. You can read his weekly articles B-Movies Extended, Free Film School and The Series Project, and follow him on “Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.