Have the movies ever given us a sadder face than the mournful visage of Takashi Shimura in Ikiru? It's the face of a man who has realized two incredibly depressing things: he is going to die soon, and he hasn't done anything with his his life. The first ninety minutes of Akira Kurosawa's film detail the story of how this man reaches the lowest point in his life. The remaining fifty minutes detail the story of what he decides to do about it.
The man is Kanji Watanabe, a mild-mannered Tokyo bureaucrat who spends his days sitting behind a desk, stamping papers and transferring complaints to other departments. Decades ago, Watanabe was motivated to make his department a well-oiled machine. Alas, the humdrum monotony has worn him down, and he no longer finds any joy or sense of purpose in his work. It's just something he does, day after day. His home life isn't much better. His wife has died, and his son and daughter-in-law only tolerate him because they hope to inherit his money. On top of all of this, he's been feeling poorly lately and seems to have lost his appetite.
Watanabe goes to the doctor's office, and engages in a bit of friendly conversation with another patient in the waiting room. In one of the film's most memorable scenes, the patient cheerfully describes the symptoms of stomach cancer (“Once you start throwing up the stuff you ate last week – well, then you're done for!”), all of which match everything Watanabe has been experiencing. The doctors tell Watanabe that he only has a mild ulcer, but this is merely a misguided effort to provide the old man with a bit of psychological relief. Watanabe knows he is doomed... and so do we, thanks to a blunt reveal from an unseen narrator at the very beginning of the film.
Watanabe knows he only has a few months left, but he doesn't know what to do with them. He tries to tell his son about his condition, but gives up after recognizing his son's inattentiveness. He visits a friend (Yunosuku Ito, Stray Dog) who provides a guided tour of a wild night out on the town, but none of the temporal pleasures he experiences – gambling, dancing, scantily-clad women – prove effective distractions from his misery. He even attempts an affair of sorts with one of his young female co-workers (Miki Odagiri), attracted to her youthful energy and hoping to convince her to reveal the secret of her happiness.
Despite a few moments of playful humor (particularly an extended montage revealing the depths of Tokyo's governmental inefficiency), the bulk of Ikiru is a grim, challenging ride. It's not challenging because it's slow or uninvolving, but because it directly confronts the all-too-familiar horror of a man coming to terms with a wasted life. His agony builds and builds to an unbearable degree, and he looks back in regret at every opportunity he has missed. The times he chose work over bonding with his son are particularly haunting, and the unsatisfying relationship he and his son now share is a consequence of that.
Shimura's performance is arguably the best of his career, and his portrait of the character's ever-deepening depression is genuinely unsettling: rather than crying harder or yelling louder, the character becomes increasingly paralyzed by his recognition that there's no way out. There are occasional moments of overacting in the film (Odagiri in particular has a tendency to overplay her reactions to Watanabe's revelations), but none of them come from Shimura: he's always agonizingly real.
The film shifts dramatically around the ninety-minute mark, leaping forward in time to Watanabe's funeral. Here, the film places the focus on Watanabe's assorted co-workers, who reflect on Watanabe's life and attempt to figure out how much he knew about his condition. What unfolds is an unconventional procedural of sorts, as we slowly begin to piece together exactly what happened during the final months of Watanabe's life.
I will not reveal the conclusions Watanabe comes to, as the slow process of discovering them is one of the film's greatest pleasures. I will say that the answers Kurosawa finds for his big, seemingly unanswerable questions are deeply moving, and that Ikiru is the sort of film that may very well inspire you to take a long, hard look at your own life. Despite its lengthy running time and unusual structure, the story has the simple beauty of a great fable. The film's central musical theme is “Gondolo no Uta,” a song Watanabe sings twice in the film. The first time he sings it, the tune sounds profoundly sad. The second time, it sounds just as profoundly inspiring. Its melancholy emotional directness embodies the spirit of Kurosawa's humanism:
Life is so short,
Fall in love, dear maiden,
While your lips are still red,
And before you are cold,
For there will be no tomorrow.
Rating: ★★★★ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Running Time: 142 minutes
Release Year: 1952