A Japanese municipal bureaucrat diagnosed with cancer tries to put meaning into his heretofore meaningless life. [ Ikiru credits: Dir: Akira Kurosawa/ Takashi Shimura, Miki Odagiri, Nobuo Kaneko/ 143 min/ Drama, Foreign Language/ Japanese/ In Japanese with English subtitles/ Creator as Hero, Working for Government]
Any story about someone with just a few months left to live is necessarily going to be moving. But this story is particularly so because the doomed man at the center of it has wasted his life and knows it. As a career City Hall bureaucrat he never made a difference to anyone, never accomplished anything of value, and now must face death with nothing but a trail of misspent days behind him.
In his last months, he searches for the happiness and contentment that he has somehow missed. At first he tries the superficial pleasures of nightlife, but nothing superficial will fill the void. By chance, he meets a young woman from his office who is quitting City Hall to work in a private company. She’s an impertinent character, but likable for her independence and happy nature. He senses that whatever it is that is missing in his life, she has it. So he follows and watches her constantly, trying to gain some insight.
In a climactic scene, just as she has become annoyed by his constant presence, he implores her to tell him how she lives. She replies simply that she works in a factory making toys for children, and feels good about it because she knows that what she is doing makes others happy. In other words, in her small way she produces value. Doing so gives her satisfaction and self-respect. This revelation transforms the bureaucrat.
Earlier in the film, he had turned down an application by some local residents to drain a swamp and turn it into a playground. Now he throws the full remaining energy of his dying life into completing the project. He is determined to do what he had never done in his thirty-year career in government: he must create something of value.
What a heart-rending story of eleventh-hour redemption! And even better, Ikiru is a story well told. There is a tremendous amount of artfulness in this film, from the meticulous direction and clever cinematography to the outstanding acting of Takashi Shimura in the leading role. The screenplay, which director Akira Kurosawa coauthored, is also literary at times. Additionally, at a visual level, this (1952) film is an interesting window into early postwar Japan. The only downside is that some scenes are more drawn out than necessary, but this is a small flaw in the overall context. This very moving and uplifting film is a must-see for every government employee. Also listed as To Live.
“Ikiru is Akira Kurosawa’s greatest film.”
“Meticulously constructed, beautifully played and poignant.”