Off the Radar: ‘Ikiru’ is a profoundly mundane but timeless masterpiece

Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru,” the 1952 Japanese film about a dying old man searching for the meaning of life, is currently available on Kanopy and NYU Stream.

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Aaliya Luthra and Max Van Hosen

Watch “Ikiru,” an underrated cinematic masterpiece by Akira Kurosawa. (Illustration by Max Van Hosen and Aaliya Luthra)

Yezen Saadah, Staff Writer

Akira Kurosawa is one of history’s most prolific cinematic artists. The great Japanese filmmaker won international acclaim with epic action films, such as “Seven Samurai,” “Yojimbo” and “Throne of Blood,” As incredible as those films are, it’s not just Kurosawa’s knack for spectacle that sets him apart from every other filmmaker — it’s also his profound humanism. Kurosawa’s 13th film, “Ikiru” — part of a series of movies that detail the post-war period in Japan from 1945-1951 — perfectly demonstrates his emotional intelligence.

The film follows Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), an elderly bureaucrat working as a section chief in City Hall. His life isn’t what one would call fulfilling. For the past 30 years, he has repeated the meaningless routine of waking up, going to work and heading home each and every day. One day, however, Watanabe, inexplicably, decides to not go to work; instead, he visits the doctor’s office. There, he is told he has a mild ulcer, which, at the time in Japan, was code for stomach cancer — an illness many viewed as a death sentence. Watanabe’s realization that he has only six months left to live is exemplified by the film’s hauntingly intimate cinematography and intensely dramatic musical score. As Watanabe walks through the crowded, post-war streets of Japan, all noise seems to be nullified. In a trance, he feels nothing but shock of his impending death. 

World War II marked a drastic shift in the global economy. The post-war depression also influenced cinema at the time, contributing to the emergence of film noir in the United States, the French New Wave in France and, most notably, Italian neorealism in Italy. The latter movement deeply influenced filmmakers around the world, who aimed to depict the lives of the average person in the post-war era, and was a large contributor to the style of “Ikiru.”

Through Watanabe’s unique perspective and circumstances, as well as Shimura’s emotional powerhouse of a performance, Kurosawa examines human life and ultimately establishes a sense of social realism within the film world. In this way, Kurosawa demonstrates his love for Russian literature — especially his favorite novelist, Fyodor Dostoevsky. As Watanabe is confronted with his impending death, he immediately thinks back on his regrets in life, particularly his relationship with his son, which he feels has been wasted since his wife passed several years prior. His regret and lackluster lifestyle, as well as his choice to always place work before family, subsequently damaged his familial relationships and haunts him.

Watanabe spends the first night after his diagnosis with a sense of great emptiness. He initially plans to drink himself to death, until a novelist he meets tells him otherwise. “We only realize how beautiful life is when we face death,” says the novelist. 

It is from this point onward that Watanabe begins to search for meaning in his life, by means of excitement. A meticulously composed montage depicts the novelist taking Watanabe shopping, dancing, to arcades, and even to a strip club. These activities, however, prove to be unfulfilling for Watanabe. The montage culminates in one of the most emotionally devastating moments in all of cinematic history, with Watanabe singing the song “Life is Brief.” Shimura effortlessly conveys Watanabe’s heartbreak and existential despair, and through his eyes alone, we understand that excitement isn’t what’s missing from Watanabe’s life

The next day, Watanabe encounters his only female subordinate, Toyo Odagiri (Miki Odagiri), who has come to request his signature on her resignation form. Fascinated by Toyo’s youthful liveliness and endless optimism, Watanabe finds himself envious of her. He spends the entire day with her and is emotionally rejuvenated by her contagious laughter and excitement. This fascination ultimately turns into an obsession, with Watanabe desperately begging her to tell him what the secret to enjoying life is. 

She reveals that she has found true happiness in her new job as a toymaker. Watanabe, through serious contemplation, has an epiphany and comes to the realization that he needs to do something that he both loves and believes will make a difference in the world after he passes. This marks the turning point in Watanabe’s life. 

Remembering how locals have been begging for the construction of a new children’s park, Watanabe uses his bureaucratic position to lobby for the new park plan. He demonstrates remarkable passion to see the project succeed, and lets nothing, not even the constant dismissals from the higher-ups, stand in his way. 

“I can’t afford to hate people,” Watanabe says. “I haven’t got that kind of time.” 

His enthusiasm and dedication sees his envisioned park come to life. Watanabe spends his last moments sitting on a swing in the middle of a snowy night, happily singing with lively content and, finally, a sense of fulfillment. Though he isn’t given the respect he so richly deserves after his passing, his vigor lives on as the film closes on children having fun in the park he built, laughing and playing with each other without a care in the world. This is Watanabe’s legacy.

Kanji Watanabe’s tale of self-discovery and purpose is incredibly entrancing and touches the soul. Unlike in any other film, the viewer goes on an intimate journey with the protagonist as he unravels what gives life purpose and how he can make his own life meaningful to him and to others. Scene after scene, poignant storytelling and passionate craftsmanship are present with love, attention and care put into each character, and an overarching message of making the most of the time you’re given. Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” is not just his finest film — it is also his greatest masterpiece. 

Contact Yezen Saadah at [email protected]