dir: Akira Kurosawa
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An aged bureaucrat, entrenched in the job for thirty years, finds out he is dying. The pointless busy work he has juggled for the length of his career, the professional objective to help no-one and do nothing unless it falls within the narrow parameters of the job description, now no longer seems as wonderful a task as it used to.
He wonders what to do now that he no longer has uncertainty regarding his fate. He takes out some of the money he’s been squirreling away, to see what he’s been depriving himself of for so long. He doesn’t tell his annoying, selfish son what’s going on, since he’s a greedy and overbearing prat, and the son’s wife is a bit of a bitch as well.
He tries the whole ‘drinking and bitches’ routine, but finds he ultimately has no taste for either. He laments his wasted life, and the manner in which he has been more dead than alive since his wife’s death many decades ago. It hurts him that his son doesn’t love him as much as he loves his son, choosing not to remarry upon his wife’s death (when the son is still tiny) for the son’s benefit. Now all the son and his wife can do is berate the old man and pray for his death so they can get a hold of his money.
The film sounds like a laugh a minute, I know, but there’s more going on in the film than it trying to get you to slit your wrists. It does have a mournful tone in parts, elegiac throughout, but there is, in the end, a redemption of sorts for our hero, who’s anything but, really.
Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is, until his diagnosis, the quintessential bureaucrat, surrounded by fortifications of paperwork, unhelpful to any that approach, only mindful of safeguarding his job and determined never to help the people who ask for his help. The irony is, of course, that he works for a division of local government called Public Affairs, which means his job is meant to be helping people living within his prefecture.
Helping people, of course, doesn’t interest him. As a recurrent element throughout the film, a group of poor women keep trying to get the bureaucrats to help them with a serious problem in their slum, but every desk sends them to a different desk so that the women, after traversing every room and floor in a large building, end up right back where they started.
Ah, the exquisite pointlessness and inefficiency of bureaucracy! You can only really appreciate the nuances of something like this if you’ve worked for the Beast directly. Sitting, as you would in the Beast’s belly, you’d know the peculiar feeling that eventually envelops all bureaucrats and renders them ineffectual as human beings. It’s this unwillingness to do anything, this resistance to helping people, and an Olympian disdain for other lowly humans which produces characters like the ones in this film.
In the Japanese post-World War II context, the bureaucracies were even more cushy, lazy and hopelessly inefficient than they are now, bless their little cotton tabi socks. It’s all about power, as are most things, but the power plays of petty pen-pushing pricks are even more incomprehensible to the general public who can’t see why anyone would want to protect these paper clip empires by never doing anything.
The office is depicted as a fortress, with stacks of paperwork representing fortifications, buttressed walls and siege towers. Characters are surrounded and almost swamped by these physical manifestations of bureaucracy as it threatens to squeeze the remaining life out of them.
For a Japanese audience watching something like this back then (not that they did, Ikiru bombed on its release), it would have had even more resonance, since their attempts to get help from these water-cooler dictators would have been even more fruitless and frustrating in the heady days of Japan’s reconstruction.
More than just being a satire of the bureaucratic class and mentality, Ikiru, which translates to “to live”, is about what makes life worth living. In Watanabe’s pursuit for meaning, he discovers initially that nothing additional, nothing extra to the stuff of his life seems to improve his lot. There’s no magic potion, no deity no job, no task, no other person who can assuage his feelings of worthlessness.
One of the youngest people at his work, a girl called Odagiri decides the Public Works office is stultifying and the work is meaningless. She quits easily and early, impressing Watanabe. He tries to hang out with her as much as he can, not out of sexual interest, but because he envies her youth. He also delights in the manner in which she seems to derive so much pleasure from her life. As she becomes increasingly uncomfortable with his attentions, she teaches him one final lesson: it’s not what you do that gives your work or life meaning, it’s why you do it, and how you do it.
Reenergised, at least temporarily, he gets the idea that there is one last great work that he can accomplish, using the only talents he possesses: the magic powers of bureaucracy. He is convinced that there is some lasting good to come of his wasted life, and it remains to be seen whether he’ll even come close.
The last half hour of the movie occurs without Watanabe in the picture, as the other bureaucrats in his office, and his own family, try to figure out what Watanabe’s deal was in the last months of his life. They do so at Watanabe’s funeral, the workers at least getting progressively drunker as they realise what a remarkable man Watanabe was, and what worthless shits they are.
Human nature is immutable, at least a partial theme brought out by the ending, but Watanabe’s last ditch efforts for meaning and relevance are still positive and uplifting. Watanabe is too broken and too nearly-dead to ever be a vital presence in the film: his every word is a croak and every move seems agonising. But, like in the other films about similar subject matter, such as Alexander Payne’s About Schmidt, or Sam Mendes’ American Beauty, we come to empathise with these strange characters and forgive them in a way they don’t always get to forgive themselves before the film ends.
Takashi Shimura, who painfully embodies Watanabe in this famous role, worked with Kurosawa plenty of times, most notably as the leader of the samurai in Seven Samurai. He also played big roles in stuff like the original Godzilla movies, so it’s not like the guy only did serious stuff like this. He’s a great actor, he probably overdoes the role a bit, but I challenge anyone to come away from the film not moved by his efforts to achieve some kind of reconciliation with his own life.
It’s a movie of great meaning and beauty, and he carries the film throughout. He has a score of great scenes throughout the film, such as the time when he sings an old weepy romantic song from the 1920s to heartbreaking effect, or when he doggedly tries to get his life’s project completed, or sitting on a swing in the snow.
None of us can escape the inevitability of our own mortality, goddamn it, but a film like Ikiru shows that there is hopefully always time to make amends for what we have or haven’t done throughout our decadent or barren lives.
8 times everyone should sing “life is brief” at a karaoke place before they die out of 10
“I can't afford to hate people. I don't have that kind of time.” - Ikiru