A terminal diagnosis sharpens the attention of an elderly council worker, leading him to question what his life has been for. Mr. Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is section head at the public liasons office of the city council. His life is one of endless drudgery, filling out forms, stamping documents, and overly bureaucratic systems that never seem to accomplish anything important. A widower, Watanabe lives with his son, Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) and his wife, whose only consideration is how his pension money may help them buy their own house. After receiving a diagnosis of stomach cancer and realising he has perhaps only 6 months left, Watanabe is understandably distraught, considering suicide, when he has a chance encounter with an author (Yunosuke Ito). This younger man shows him the delights of the city, playing his ‘Mephistopheles’ for the night as he introduces him to the joys of gambling, drinking and women. Watanabe also begins a relationship with his younger female co-worker Toyo (Miki Odagiri), whose joie de vivre contrasts starkly with his own dreary existence. Inspired by her, and still grasping for purpose, Watanabe returns to work and sets about pushing through citizens proposals for a children’s play park.
“Ikiru”, written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, who worked on the screenplay with Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, is a perfectly balanced human drama, creating a timeless character in Watanabe. He is a man who finds himself in a familiar position, having given 25 years of his life to a job that he has little personal interest in, for a son who seems not to care for him, while doing little for himself. The stomach cancer, while a tragic occurence, spurs him to action. The central performance by Takashi Shimura is wonderfully nuanced, as he copes with feelings of fear, regret, and loneliness, balanced by occasional levity and a hard-headed determination that grows with the acceptance of his morality. The supporting cast play off him excellently, never detracting from his struggle, but offering a reflective mirror through which to see Watanabe. Shimura’s Watanabe looks to them for some sort of answer to his question of what he should be doing with the short time he has left. Each has their own perspective, showing that there are no easy answers for Watanabe, but at the same time they encourage him to see the value of pursuing something meaningful to him. The story is told with ample use of montages, giving a sense of a bustling world and creating a fully rounded character in Watanabe. In his relationship with Toyo and Mitsuo, we see the various aspects that make up a person, and in the later flashbacks as his colleagues remember him we get a similar sense of his character. In Watanabe’s final moments, we also see the importance of personal happiness, in fulfilling something you know is worthwhile, in spite of what others say about you, or whether you receive credit for it.
Kurosawa’s direction with cinematographer Asakazu Nakai produces some incredibly evocative moments, with the sillhouetted figures on the bridge, the office that is creaking under the weight of piled papers reflecting the enormity of concepts such as time and mortality. The script avoids unnecessary exposition, instead focussing on the human reactions to tragedy. Watanabe never explicitly states why he changed his opinion on life, or suddenly found a second wind, but it is made clear through Shimuras performance and his encounters with the other characters. Toyo showing him the children’s toy her factory makes is another great example of the film guiding us through visually and emotionally, as well as his nickname is ‘The Mummy’, which needs no further explanation. A stunning rumination on mortality and humanity that has an inspiring message for viewers depsite the seemingly depressing themes. The title of the film says it clearest, this is not a film about dying, but about living.