Directed by Akira Kurosawa
How does the knowledge of death change how we live? It is the problem of human existence, the essential problem, that we have a hard time acknowledging the reality of death, and living accordingly. We always think we have a little more time. It’s a delusion, and perhaps it’s one that is necessary to keep life somewhat bearable. But it is a delusion. Emily’s great monologue at the end of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town expresses what those near death understand:
Emily: Oh, Mama, look at me one minute as though you really saw me. Mama, fourteen years have gone by. I’m dead. You’re a grandmother, Mama! Wally’s dead, too. His appendix burst on a camping trip to North Conway. We felt just terrible about it – don’t you remember? But, just for a moment now we’re all together. Mama, just for a moment we’re happy. Let’s really look at one another!…I can’t. I can’t go on.It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another. I didn’t realize. So all that was going on and we never noticed. Take me back — up the hill — to my grave. But first: Wait! One more look. Good-bye , Good-bye world. Good-bye, Grover’s Corners….Mama and Papa. Good-bye to clocks ticking….and Mama’s sunflowers. And food and coffee. And new ironed dresses and hot baths….and sleeping and waking up. Oh, earth,you are too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings ever realize life while they live it–every,every minute?
Stage Manager: No. (pause) The saints and poets, maybe they do some.
It is a tragic kind of wisdom.
I realized recently that I think of that monologue, on average, once a day. That’s a hell of a statement about that passage’s message. It actually tells you how to live. It acts as a constant reminder to me. Live. Stay in the moment. Tell people you love them. Be affectionate. Be understanding. Be kind. Look at each other. Try to be with people. This is all you get. As far as we know. Life is all. Cherish it.
Ikiru has a similar lasting power. I first saw it (like I saw so many classic films) in the gigantic Music Box Theatre in Chicago, and was overpowered by it. I still find it overpowering, and while there are so many individual scenes/shots I love (the dance hall with the piano player and the mirror on the ceiling, the montage of bureaucratic inefficiency, the wake scene – unbelievable – and then of course the final shot which is one of the greatest shots ever put on film), and the acting is superb – it is the message that resonates. I suppose it is up to interpretation, like all good messages. You could sit and discuss The Brothers Karamazov for hours and not get to the bottom of it. It is a philosophical treatise. So, too, is Ikiru. The debate in the film that takes place at the wake for Mr. Watanabe as to the meaning of Watanabe’s life (and his strange out-of-character behavior near the end of his life), and what they all should be “left with” in terms of a message, is indicative of the human condition. How to interpret things? There isn’t just one interpretation. There can’t be. That great great wake scene also helps the film avoid any hint of sentimentality. So that when the final scene comes, we have looked at it from all sides, we have seen all angles, and we are left open and available for the gigantic impact which exists on an eternal plane, a human spirit kind of plane.
As I watched Ikiru this last time, I thought to myself of Emily’s monologue in Our Town, and how – in moments of stress – it reminds me of How to Live. It is that important. It has that much resonance. That is the Art’s potential. Later, I went looking up reviews of Ikiru and found that Ebert had said a similar thing.
We who have followed Watanabe on his last journey are now brought forcibly back to the land of the living, to cynicism and gossip. Mentally, we urge the survivors to think differently, to arrive at our conclusions. And that is how Kurosawa achieves his final effect: He makes us not witnesses to Watanabe’s decision, but evangelists for it. I think this is one of the few movies that might actually be able to inspire someone to lead their life a little differently.
Ikiru is a film I treasure, and there’s always something new to discover. This last time I laughed out loud at an early cafe scene, when Mr. Watanabe’s buddy takes him out for a night on the town, and we see a crowded cafe, with Watanabe and his pal sitting at a small table in the foreground. All around them is the revelry of life. Then, into the frame from the right, come three gigantic horns, unnoticed by Watanabe and friend. The horns (with players remaining unseen) begin to BLARE music, scaring poor Mr. Watanabe out of his wits. It’s a hysterical shot. The film is full of moments like that. But by the end, I am always wrung dry.