(photo courtesy of thekurosawaproject)
A Review and Contemplation of Kurosawa’s Ikiru
“Occasionally I think of my death…then I think, how can I ever bear to take a final breath, while living a life like this, how could I leave it? There is, I feel, so much more for me to do—I keep feeling I have lived so little yet. Then I become thoughtful, but not sad. It was from such a feeling that Ikiru arose.”- Akira Kurosawa
Every few years or so, I return to watch one of my favorite classic films, Ikiru, or To Live (1952). It is considered one of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpieces, and definitely his most notable piece that is not a period samurai film. The protagonist is a petty, mid-level official who does nothing but stamp papers to perpetuate the red tape that maintains the political bureaucratic machine that he is a part of. After he learns he has stomach cancer and six months to live, he goes through a period of desperate confusion and despair, until a sudden realization prompts the total transformation of his personality and personal sense of meaning. Generally, the plot is pretty rudimentary, but the emotional depth of the characters and the changes they go through is what makes the film, in my opinion, one of the few truly masterful works of cinema.
Usually, I tend to gravitate towards the film when I feel I’ve reached a plateau in my life and need a spur that will rekindle some sense of purpose. As the school year draws to a close, I’m forced to think about what I’m going to spend an entire summer doing, now that there are no classes and less tutoring jobs to occupy my time with. But at this point in my life, I think I can more honestly face the uncomfortable questions Kurosawa is bringing up in Ikiru, than I would have been able to when I first started watching his films as an adolescent. Thus, I decided on the last weekend of the semester to revisit the film, so that perhaps I might have something to contemplate once my finals were finished at the end of the coming week. I wished to have the ambiguities of life and death swimming in the back of my head, so that when all of my academic duties were finally complete, I could return and entertain answers that might have floated up. So, thoroughly exhausted from commuting back and forth from my friend’s housewarming and two tutoring jobs at opposite ends of the city, all the while studying about medieval chivalry, I sat back and reclined in my plastic chair and pressed play on a suspicious free streaming video of Kurosawa’s film I found on the internet. My light bulb was burnt out, my neighbors’ cigarettes were floating in from the room below me, and some giant party was taking place outside with screams and drunken revelry. I put in my earbuds, and attempted to settle into the black and white opening credits and dramatic orchestra.
The first few scenes detail the workings of the bureaucratic office, or rather, the lack of work. We are given a montage of a group of mothers who demand that a disease ridden cesspool be cleaned up and turned into a park for their sick children, but who are turned away countless numbers of times and dismissed and referred away to every possible department. Finally, they explode in anger at the Bureau of Public Affairs, after being rejected by everyone else.
However, Kanji, the protagonist and Chief of Public Affairs, is out. We watch him as he is diagnosed with stomach cancer at the doctor’s office, and he slowly begins to fall into despondency. He starts to imagine some memories of his late wife, but mostly he remembers his son growing up. Although he claims throughout the film the only reason he has wasted his life in bureaucratic drudgery for the past 25 years is his son, in the clips we see that he doesn’t actually seem to really even get to know his son during this time. Ironically, he is shocked when he discovers that his son doesn’t really care about him either, and wants to use all of his money and retirement bonuses to buy a house for him and his wife. Thus, in a few moments, all of Kanji’s illusions about his self-sacrifice and familial dedication are destroyed, and he has one less thing to hold on to.
So begins the protagonist’s desperate search for meaning, specifically reassurance that his life will not be completely meaningless before he dies. At this point in the movie, the video is interrupted for fifteen seconds to give the stage to a Kraft Miracle Whip commercial, where a man in a boot store goes temporarily insane because the dip is too good. Unfortunately, the video would henceforth be continuously interrupted by Kraft Miracle Whip commercials. When Kanji reappears on the screen, he has wandered into a bar, where a solitary writer who calls himself a “good Mephistopheles” offers to show him a night of pleasure and debauchery to make his final days worthwhile. After a night of dancing, drinking, and striptease, the still despairing protagonist asks the pianist to play a song from a few decades before that was popular in his youth. The night ends with Kanji staring out into space, singing the lyrics in a low, atonal voice, with a few tears dripping down his face, putting a dead halt to the mood and movements of all of the young couples around him. “Life is so short / fall in love maidens / while your lips are still red / for there will be no tomorrow” (Kurosawa).
This is the second display of Kanji’s alienation that is presented to us. All of these periods are necessary for Kanji as a character to reach a deeper understanding of what life means at the most integral level. The protagonist is presented as a kind of Christ-like figure, which is not surprising considering Dostoevsky was one of Kurosawa’s main inspirations. In fact, “Mephistopheles” calls Kanji Christ at one point in the movie. He drunkenly exclaims to the bartender, “Ecce homo. Behold this man. This” (Kurosawa). At that point in the film, his statements are somewhat incongruous with the situation, which is evident when Kanji looks up smiling dumbly to confirm. But as the film progresses, we do see some parallels with Christian symbolism in Kanji’s actions. For instance, he seems to go through a “dark night of the soul”, a term first used by St. John of Cross to denote the feelings of desolation and alienation from the world that accompanies giving up worldly life in pursuit of God. Kanji must first give up his attachment to his family, his solace in pleasure, and finally, his dependence on other people for happiness, in order to reach true understanding of his life.
After failing to find a sense of fulfillment in nightlife, we are brought to the next thing he attempts to grab onto for meaning: the warmth of his subordinate female coworker, Toyo. At first, the girl enjoys the mutual companionship, but over time grows weary of the old man as he continues to follow her around, even after she resigns from her post and finds a new job. Even if Kanji has no intention of seducing the young coworker, this is how she interprets it, and she finally confronts him about it at their final meeting.
A few weeks ago, I read a blog with reviews of all of Kurosawa’s movies, and to my surprise, I saw a good amount of criticism of the films I highly regarded as a teenager, and, somewhat to my current regret, watched multiple times a year. A few of the blogger’s general comments that stood out to me were that Kurosawa was generally incapable of, or uninterested in, making fully-developed female characters, and that his films were either a bit too sentimental, moralistic, or both. So when I decided to revisit Ikiru, I expected to engage with the film more critically and discover any flaws that I had previously glossed over in my childhood infatuation with the filmmaker’s work. I knew that the film had one of Kurosawa’s best and most complex female characters, but I at least hoped to see to what extent the film was flawed in its development of a potentially very melodramatic topic.
To my disappointment, I could not identify much sentimentality in Ikiru. Perhaps some of his other films that I enjoyed in my youth were fraught with the overdone emotional scenes that the blogger spoke of, but the scenes that I once remembered as somewhat sentimental from Ikiru turned out to be quite the opposite as I viewed them again as an adult. When Toyo finally confronts Kanji about their meetings, all of the previous images we have of her enjoying life jubilantly and constantly giggling with Kanji suddenly fall away, and we are faced with the awkward reality that she’s spending much of her time with a puppy-eyed, creepy, and lonely old man. As Kanji silently stares at the ground in shame after being ridiculed, Toyo glances at the different ends of the restaurant. On one side, a group of friends are celebrating a birthday party, and on the other side, a young couple ogles at each other in the restaurant booth. Then she returns to face what’s in front of her: her aging, depressed companion.
Finally, Kanji blurts out what he’s been holding in, that he’s going to die soon. One would think that Toyo would return to her normal happy self and have a change of heart after hearing his confession, but at this point she only becomes increasingly creeped out. Sensing her panic, he desperately tries to explain why he is drawn to her: “I know. I nearly drowned in a pond once when I was a child. I felt exactly the same way then. Everything seems black. No matter how I struggle and panic, there’s nothing to grab hold of, except you” (Kurosawa). Kanji, lost in his emotion, draws increasingly closer to her and repeatedly questions her to find out the secret to her happiness. One cannot but feel sorry for Toyo, who clambers around in her seat in an effort to get away from him.
I recall Kanji’s performance as being over the top, but in actuality he perfectly embodies a frenzied old man who knows he’s going to die, and the viewer actually feels more compassion for Toyo at this point because the reality of the interaction is so uncomfortable. There are no heartfelt displays of sadness on her part or an eagerness to help the dying man. Rather, we are shown the unpleasant truth of what a young woman would probably do when confronted with the desperation of an old man on the verge of death seeking emotional solace in her. She reacts in horror and tries to put an end to the interaction as quickly as possible.
The relationship between Toyo and Kanji is an interesting study of human companionship. Both are extremely lonely, one because he is at the verge of death with no one to hold on to, the other because she is at the peak of her life with no one to share it with. Kurosawa shows the ugly reality of the situation, that although they both desire human bonding, the end result of their connection can only be the eventual awkward dissolution of the friendship, because neither can provide the other with what they want. After Kanji begs her to tell him what she does to be so full of life, she responds, “Nothing! I just work and eat!” Finally, after more incessant pleas, she takes out a little toy rabbit that she crafted at her new job. “I mean it. All I do is make these little things.” She winds the little bunny and it hops across the table. “Making them, I feel like I’m playing with every baby in Japan. Why don’t you try making something?” (Kurosawa). This thought suddenly sparks the beginning of Kanji’s transformation. To Toyo’s relief, he runs out of the restaurant, bunny in hand, while she stares at the table in shock.
The other section of the movie that has the potential to be overly sentimental is Kanji’s funeral scene. A few short scenes after Kanji’s sudden change in the restaurant, we are presented with Kanji’s face memorialized in a picture frame, and the narrator’s voice: “Five months later, our hero is dead” (Kurosawa). During the first part of the funeral, we do not hear sob stories about Kanji or praises of his work, but rather the Deputy Mayor denouncing his accomplishments. We slowly begin to learn that Kanji had taken it upon himself to dedicate his final months to defying the bureaucratic machine he had been so entrenched in, by helping the group of mothers in the beginning of the film get a park built to replace the filthy cesspool. The funeral continues on with Kanji’s coworkers criticizing him and insisting he had little to do with the creation of the park. As the night progresses, they begin to change their mind as evidence starts to pile up in favor of Kanji, and within a few hours, everyone is drunk and praising him. The funeral ends with everyone exclaiming that they too will defy the bureaucratic machine, follow in Kanji’s example, and dedicate their lives to doing something worthwhile.
But of course, the next day when a townsperson comes to the Bureau to file a complaint, they are dismissed and told to go somewhere else, and no one says a word. Any sentimentality or hope that Kurosawa offers in the funeral scene is simply negated by the dim reality of mass complacency. Thus, we are left with a completely ambiguous and open-ended contemplation about the film’s message.
My own response to the movie as a teenager seemed to mimic the same pattern at the end of the film, without me even realizing it. Like Kanji’s coworkers, I would get extremely excited and desire to do something to change the world or break through societal stagnation, but within a week or two I would forget and return to my normal complacent self that was absorbed in meaningless high school drudgery. I had my very own bureaucratic institution to be crushed by, and it didn’t help that my high school was designed by prison architects, and shaped like one. But today, I think the time is ripe enough for the film to have a permanent effect on me. This was the most I ever cried in my seven or eight viewings, even while the climax of the movie was interrupted by the Kraft Miracle Whip commercial. Judging from the huge emotional catharsis I had at the end of the film, I feel that, like Kanji, I’ve stripped away enough layers of the societal forces dictating my life for this film to actually prompt some fundamental change in me, rather than just leave me temporarily inspired. Without the impetus of a near death experience, personal transformation is a slow and onerous process fraught with reversals, doubts, and confusion, thoughts which are mostly perpetuated by feelings of self-pity and shame we pick up from society, and negative habits we learned from our parents. Nevertheless, I still feel the film is very useful for shocking us into reality and bringing us face to face with what it means to cling to aspects of our life that are cultivated not out of love, but out of habit and insecurity.
Many of the reviews of this movie state that Ikiru is a deeply existential film, which claims that all life is inherently meaningless, and that meaning is something that is created by and has purpose solely to individual. However, Kurosawa himself, as revealed in an interview with R.B. Gadi, disagrees with this interpretation and says that this wasn’t his intention (33-4). Just because Kurosawa was inspired by Dostoevsky and made a film with an ambiguous ending doesn’t mean he’s suggesting life is meaningless. Rather, I think he was pointing to some sense of purpose in life that is beyond conceptualizing into words.
It may be true that Kanji is going through existential despair as he pleads for Toyo’s secret to happiness, but by the end of the film he is very far from this mode of being. The pure dedication that he extends to others who have absolutely no relation to him cannot be said to come from a meaningless place, or even a place of self-created meaning that the existentialists offer as an alternative to despair. Instead, I believe he is operating from a sense of purpose that is neither non-existent nor self-created, but rather just the perpetual, inherent truth of life and connection that is covered up from years of social conditioning and trivial acts of self-protection. I don’t see anything special about this, and Kanji doesn’t see anything special about his achievement at the end of the movie either. He is content to sit in the back row at the opening reception of the park, and to die alone on a swing in the snow. So I believe that when people watch Ikiru, they shouldn’t focus on the insignificance of his actions, but rather that in Kanji’s mind at the end of the movie, insignificance itself is probably not even important. When people stop second guessing whether their actions are significant or insignificant, praised or disdained, perhaps they will actually experience life without judgment. A life not bound by superficial concerns, but instead open to the infinite possibilities that exist for human connection and individual creativity. That’s the kind of realization I think the film is pointing to.
Gadi, R.B.. “An Afternoon with Kurosawa.” Akira Kurosawa Interviews.
Ed. Bert Cardullo. Jackson: The University Press of Mississippi, 2008. 33
Kurosawa, Akira, dir. Ikiru. Toho Co., 1952. Film. 18 May 2013.
Richie, Donald. “A Personal Record: Kurosawa and I” Akira Kurosawa Interviews. Ed.
Bert Cardullo. Jackson: The University Press of Mississippi, 2008. 13. Print.