One of Akira Kurosawa’s most poignant films, Ikiru (‘to live’) tells the story of overly bureaucratic government worker Kanji Watanabe reflecting on, and redeeming, his life after being diagnosed with a terminal illness.
The film’s opening above succinctly sets the scene with Kanji, played by Takashi Shimura, a superficially similar character to Ebenezer Scrooge. A difference between both characters is Kanji’s mortality being allocated a clear length from the outset, we’re left in no doubt of his immediate fate. There are similar themes and time-shifting constructs to A Christmas Carol but Ikiru is a clearly distinct piece of work.
Kanji’s most notable relationship during his journey is with his young subordinate co-worker Toyo, played by Miki Odagiri. Here Kanji not only confesses his fate but also his dependence on Toyo as a conduit to his youth. We’re perhaps never entirely clear of Toyo’s reciprocal reward for this relationship but are led to believe altruism plays some role.
The second half of the film deals with Kanji port-mortem, his wake stepping back allowing us to see his bureaucratic role in full context. In this boldly shot scene, ambitious and officious bureaucrats from a competing department show their unease at the outpouring of affection for Kanji’s redemptive work before his death. There may also be commentary on Japan’s fledgling post-war democracy.
In a plaintive scene we’re allowed to view Kanji’s frailty in his body and loneliness in his struggle through another one of his subordinates, the kindly Saito (Minosuke Yamada). It may not be strictly applicable but we’re reminded of a quote from another great filmmaker Orson Welles, “We’re born alone, we live alone, we die alone. Only through our love and friendship can we create the illusion for the moment that we’re not alone”.
The film is not overly sympathetic. We’re told, again through Saito, despite Kanji’s work battling against the system for the greater good things carry on as before. But these battles won along the way allow us to leave our mark, Saito here viewing Kanji’s legacy, the product of an ultimately fruitful and selfless life. Life lessons aplenty.
Reference: Ikiru – Wikipedia