“What would you do if you only had six months to live?”
This is a direct quote from Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 drama, Ikiru, but it also serves as the essence of the story question. Takashi Shimura acts in the lead role of Kanji Watanabe, a bureaucrat who has spent the past 30 years of his life merely, in his own words, “killing time.” Soon, he learns of a terminal stomach cancer diagnosis that has his days numbered. So much of Watanabe’s time on earth has been devoted to only getting by. As a member of the merciless bureaucratic machine that has made life so difficult for the less fortunate for so long, guilt and shame sets into his heart. Now that he understands the preciousness of each valuable moment, he sets out to leave something beautiful behind, knowing that he cannot take it with him when he goes.
When it comes to depicting the intense horrors of reality, Kurosawa masterfully balances disciplined restraint with abrasive honesty. Life can be harrowing and terrifying, especially when an individual is painfully aware that he is approaching the end of the line. The severity of Watanabe’s illness is not graphically shown on screen, but we are made to comprehend the inescapable shadow of fatality that hangs over his head. This is delivered by the impeccable writing, direction, and editing in every moment of the film. There is such care, meticulousness, and accuracy to each line of dialogue, movement of the camera, and cut in the film reel.
The editing style (from Kôichi Iwashita) in particular incorporates flashbacks that provide significant context as complementary components to the present situations as they unfold. The non-linear storytelling was definitely the best way to tell this story, and works on a profound level. Ultimately, Ikiru is a film about legacy. It’s the story of what Watanabe has done with his life – or, more specifically, what he has not done, and what he is trying to do in his final days. With time playing such a factor in the narrative, Kurosawa had a remarkable task on his hands – along with his co-writers Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, and the editor Iwashita – as they sought to balance such a calculated chronicle of events. And, the final result is about as perfect as one could hope for. This film is fully aware of the influence of time as it passes through people and places. Nothing is left untouched by the passage of time – whether this is the health of people (physical, mental, or emotional), relationships, or natural environments. Time moves through everything and everybody, without discrimination.
There was a certain scene that, quite literally, had me pause the movie to catch my breath: The “Life is Brief” moment. This segment is placed close to the center of the movie. Here, we have Watanabe, shortly after learning of his deadly predicament, still unsure of how he wants to spend the latter months of his life. His initial reaction is to partake in various frivolous activities and mischief – think drinking, partying, strip tease shows, etc. He’s not here for a long time, but he can still have a good time, right? Here he sits in a crowded party, intoxicated along with the rest of the guests after a wild night. The piano player in the corner of the room is taking requests. Watanabe speaks up and asks for an old 1915 ballad, “Life is Brief.” The melody starts playing, Watanabe begins to sing along, and soon the entire room falls silent as all eyes turn to this sad, old man with tears gently rolling down his face. This is a man staring straight into a future that he, at the moment, sees devoid of hope and light, filled only with darkness and death. Simultaneously, he peers at his past transgressions with remorse. He is filled with chagrin in every conceivable way. The camera is trained on the face of Watanabe, as Takashi Shimura takes over with one of the single greatest bits of pure emotive acting that I have ever seen. I would not necessarily say that Kurosawa is responsible for pulling performances like this from his actors, but there is something to be said about the opportunities he gives them to express their humanity and raw emotion. Actors like Shimura give the performances, but Kurosawa sets them up for success by digging into wells of human storytelling and empathetic filmmaking that few others are capable of reaching.
After his dark revelation at the party, Watanabe finally decides what he will do something beautiful and worthwhile for posterity with the time he has left. He will now actually do something with the governing power vested in him as a bureaucratic worker – clean up a contaminated cesspool of an area in the center of town, and build a park and playground for children in its place. Parents of young children had been requesting this action for quite some time, but Watanabe had turned the other way the whole time. But now, he was truly discovering how “to live.” And that he did, working like a man possessed for his last months, weeks, and days, even as he wasted away from an illness that was slowly killing him with every waking hour. After a time-jump, it is revealed that he has passed away. He was found dead in the very park whose existence was largely his own creation. This is a cycle coming full circle. A man who spent most of his life “killing time” realized that time was in fact killing him, and made the decision to do something about it. He lived passionately (and compassionately), with a zeal for service above self. When the work was done, he could finally rest and be at peace, knowing that he did indeed live.
At approximately the 90-minute mark of the film (which has a total length of 142 minutes), the narrative style shifts perspectives. Most of the story up to this point has been seen through the eyes of Watanabe’s character, but considering his death, the point-of-view is now focused on his compatriots that remain in the world of the living. At a wake in his honor, a couple dozen of his former co-workers gather around and reflect upon his life and legacy. Some of them want to discredit his efforts of bringing the park to fruition – and even take the credit for themselves. But there are others in the same group who staunchly defend Watanabe’s legacy, inspired by his devotion and soulful display of selflessness.
It is a bit eerie to think about these circumstances in relation to our own lives, but the fact of the matter is that no matter what we do or do not do in our time on earth, successive generations are going to have people on both sides of the fence as they look back on our lives. Some will heap praise after praise upon our legacy, but others will seek out our mistakes and shortcomings as our defining characteristics. Of course, it would be nice if literally every single person in the world had nothing bad to say about an individual’s life, and I suppose if you want to set that goal for yourself, then go for it. However, Watanabe did not care what others thought of him by the end of his life, because he had ultimately reconciled all of his flaws and imperfections, truly satisfied with the man he was as he took his final breaths. He attained this fulfillment through personal sacrifice and humility. That is the kind of life I strive to live as well.