Ikiru (1952); directed by Akira Kurosawa


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.

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8 Responses to Ikiru (1952); directed by Akira Kurosawa

  1. mutecypher says:

    Oh my goodness, I wanted to shout at Watanabe’s co-workers and friends at his wake, how they didn’t understand his choices, his silly and ultimately noble life. I’ve only seen it on my TV, it must be extra-powerful on the big screen. Did you get to see it in a theater again?

    Shimura was such a wonderful actor, especially in his Kurosawa films. Double especially in Seven Samurai.

    • mutecypher says:

      I would have loved to have seen him as Ono, the protagonist, in a film of Ishiguro’s An Artist of The Floating World. The guy just owned wisdom and regret.

    • sheila says:

      Oh he is such a wonderful actor! He is so heartbreaking in this role, realizing that he has wasted most of his life.

      And yes – the wake just degenerates into this bickering over who should get the “credit” for building that park. It’s crazy! I love when the cop shows up and says that he blames himself for the man’s death … and then reveals that he was swinging on the swing in the snow, the first glimpse we have of what happened in that park.

      SUCH a powerful scene. Then when all the women show up, weeping and wailing … THEY know how amazing Watanabe was.

      God, it brings a lump to my throat!

      • sheila says:

        And no – I’ve only seen it on the big screen that one time. The Music Box is a huge theatre, and that last shot – which is so stunning – one of the most emotionally charged shots I’ve ever seen – is purely overwhelming. I was blubbering like a baby the first time I saw it.

    • Lefty Throckmorton says:

      Oh my goodness, I wanted to shout at Watanabe’s co-workers and friends at his wake, how they didn’t understand his choices, his silly and ultimately noble life.

      Why didn’t you just get up out of your easy chair and yell, ‘Wake up, you fucking idiots, and learn from what he did these last few months of his life!’? I know that I would’ve done so if I were watching Ikiru at home on TV.

      Shimura also played the scientist in Godzilla (1954 version) who also goes out heroically, BTW.

  2. Takashi Shimura – such a great actor. His powerful charismatic leader of the Seven Samurai was filmed the year AFTER his old dying Watanabe in Ikiru. I own and love both films and quite a few other Kurosawas. Oh, and Emily’s speech is so important to me, too.

    • sheila says:

      Shirmura is miraculous. Those closeups in Ikiru, his pain, and loneliness, and fear. He’s just amazing. And you’re right: comparing to the performance in Seven Samurai – for real??

      Glad to hear your feelings about Emily’s speech. I finally started paying attention to how often it came up in my mind and i was startled! Every day! Go, Thornton Wilder, huh?

      • sheila says:

        and I love the dynamic with the young woman from his office. Noticing her ripped stockings. Wanting to hang out with her. You get that it’s not romantic, not quite. It’s her life force he wants to be close to.

        argh, this film is so great!

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