Here dies Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura). For 30 years he has been pushing pencils and stamping government documents inside the cluttered offices of Tokyo’s City Hall. He has 75 days left to live (stomach cancer), a son who pays him no mind, and little more than a couple of plaques to show for his life. Watanabe has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
Ikiru, Japanese for “to live,” is one of the great existential masterpieces of the 20th century. Loosely based on Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich — but equally drawing on the works of Fyodor Dostoevsky — Ikiru asks if one can find meaning in a meaningless existence.
Consider Watanabe’s place in Japanese bureaucracy: Show up on time and do no work. People come and go, they complain about rashes, unhealthy water, landfills and the like. They are shuffled from one department to the next, complaints are filed and, eventually, the problem goes away. Nothing is fixed, yet life moves on in the way only life can.
Such is Watanabe’s life, day after day, for 30 years. And then one day, he doesn’t show up and, eventually, decides to do some work.
Shimura, Japan’s greatest everyman actor, manages to give Watanabe a level of pathos rarely seen in such films. Grief-stricken and terrified, Watanabe’s eyes stare into oblivion, wondering if anything awaits him on the other side. Then another thought: Was there any reason he was here, on this side, in the first place? Maybe not, and that’s far more terrifying.
The beauty of Ikiru isn’t that it sentimentalizes death; it’s how it looks critically at those who live without contributing anything. If Plato supposed the unexamined life was not worth living, Ikiru wonders if a meaningless life is worse.
That is more or less the emphasis of Watanabe’s wake two-thirds of the way through the film. In it, men drink heavily, wailing for Watanabe, enthrone his legacy and pledge to follow his lead and do more with their lives. The next day, the men sober up, go to work and return to their old ways. Director Akira Kurosawa presents these men with little irony. Disdain? Certainly, but it’s hard to hold too much contempt for people who are nothing more than a product of their environment.
Working with screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, who died at the age of 100 this year, Ikiru is a penetrating look at a society that has had too much humanity drained from it. It’s cold and bleak, and not even the pleasures of the flesh will help. Only selfless action will bring about a revelation, though even that will be short-lived.
Epiphanies are always fleeting. They are just simple moments where we swing in a park and sing an old song to ourselves. We can’t ask for much more than that. And, maybe, we shouldn’t. After all, when we sober up in the morning, we have to go back to work.
On the Bill: Ikiru on 35mm. 7:30 p.m. Monday, Aug. 27, International Film Series, Muenzinger Auditorium, 1905 Colorado Ave., Boulder, internationalfilmseries.com