The genius of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru is the way this deeply sentimental film continually deflates sentimentality. Talk about a movie that earns its tears.
In postwar Japan, a widower and 30-year bureaucrat learns he has stomach cancer, which gradually makes him realize that he’s done nothing but push meaningless papers most of his life. (The fact that the omniscient narrator already knows both of these things is part of the film’s surprising humor.) As the shock subsides, he tries to make up for lost time in a variety of misguided ways, until he finally gains some small understanding of what it might mean – as the title translates – “to live.”
Takashi Shimura plays the bureaucrat, Watanabe, and it took me awhile to acclimate myself to the performance, considering its basic building block is a close-up of Watanabe’s face, eyes agape. Keeping in mind the cultural context (there is a tradition of exaggerated expression in Japanese acting), it’s also worth noting that Watanabe’s face is fixed because he is, in fact, a man paralyzed – frozen in the harsh light of imminent death. Focusing on his face also discounts other elements of physicality at play, particularly the way Watanabe always seems to be hunched under some great weight, whether it’s the stacks of paperwork behind him in his office or the callous indifference of his son, who lives with his wife upstairs. (Among the movie’s quietly mortifying shots: a view from the top of those stairs to the tiny Watanabe below, bent over in the darkness.)
Callousness, paralysis, death – perhaps now is a good time to take note of just how funny Ikiru is. There is a hint of humor in that knowing narrator at the start, as well as in the early montage of a group of exasperated residents trying to make their way through the bureaucratic maze of city hall (a sequence that surely influenced Terry Gilliam’s Brazil). In the waiting room at the doctor’s office, Watanabe also encounters a gadfly who, uninformed about Watanabe’s condition, babbles on and on about which symptoms could be signs of cancer. He’s like a walking, talking WebMD, only there to heighten Watanabe’s paranoia.
Watanabe’s face is fixed because he’s a man paralyzed – frozen in the harsh light of imminent death.
The most amusing figure is a drunken novelist (Yunosuke Ito) who learns of Watanabe’s fate and insists on leading him through a night of comically poeticized debauchery in order to make up for lost time. Ito’s arrival couldn’t come at a better time, for just as Ikiru is threatening to be an obvious, self-satisfied “lesson” movie, here is a clown who bemoans, in a sake slur, that we only appreciate life when death is upon us. After espousing the movie’s supposed moral, he promptly fails to learn from it. The ensuing night is a comic disaster that also includes one particularly poignant moment in a nightclub. Following a garish American jazz number, Watanabe asks the pianist if he’ll play an older song, “Life is Brief.” At first the surrounding couples come together for a slow dance, seemingly won over by the sentiment. But then Watanabe begins to sing along in a warbling, grievous voice. His honesty is too much for them – they came here for the express reason of denying such sad realities – and so they disperse, leaving Watanabe once again alone.
There are other examples of Ikiru pushing and pulling between easy sentiment and honest cynicism. The final half hour of the film takes a remarkably unconventional detour, set at Watanabe’s wake. As his family and coworkers debate the meaning of his life, flashbacks reveal both the truth and the misperceptions within their claims. (There is humor here too, especially in the way these bureaucrats literally stumble all over each other to always be part of the consensus.) Then, just when we think that Watanabe’s character, if not his life, has been given real meaning, Kurosawa includes an epilogue back at city hall that devastates with a simple camera move (and more paperwork). Did Watanabe end up leading a life of substance? As in Kurosawa’s puzzle piece, Rashomon, it depends on your point of view.