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Ikiru: In death, one learns to live
"Ikiru" is Akira Kurosawa's greatest film. Ikiru in Japanese means "to live."
And the film tells the story of a man who, upon learning he is terminally ill, doesn't just realize he has lead a meaningless life but that he hasn't lived at all a story of a man who begins to live only after he learns he is dying.
The first part of the film shows us Watanabe's "life" before, and after, he learns he has stomach cancer, and has only three months to live. He realizes he has never really lived.
The film informs us that Watanabe thrashing his way through empty efforts to live, to find some meaning to his life. At the end of the film's first half, he finally sees something that opens his eyes to how he must spend his remaining days.
The film then takes us to its second half which begins at a wake held in honor of the late Kanji Watanabe. The rest of the story, how Watanabe spent his remaining days, is told in the flashback recollections of Watanabe's former workmates.
Ikiru opens with Watanabe, a widower, at work stamping papers in his dreary civil servant job at Tokyo City Hall. He hasn't missed a day of work in 30 years, and never takes vacations. He lives with his callous son, and his inheritance-obsessed daughter-in-law.
The film begins with a group of women arriving at his department to complain about a cesspool in their neighborhood. They want it filled so the site won't be a health hazard; it should be filled in so the site can be a playground for their children. Watanabe dismissively tells them they must take their problem to the engineering department. Off they go, shuffled from department to department until they end up back at Watanabe's department, empty-handed.
When Watanabe discovers he is terminally ill, he fails to show up for work. No one at the office sees him for days.
He wanders the streets, until one night he is at a bar and begins to talk to a novelist about his fading life. The young man takes Watanabe on a tour of Tokyo's night spots. Maybe a little frivolity is the missing ingredient in Watanabe's life.
At one of these places, Watanabe kills the festive atmosphere when the piano player asks for song requests. Watanabe mumbles that he wants to hear an old song, "Life is Brief."
As the pianist plays the sedate, lovely, tune, Watanabe tearfully sings the song:
Life is brief, Fall in love, maidens; Before the crimson bloom, Fades from your lips; Before the tides of passion, Cool within you; For those of you, Who knows no tomorrow.
It is a beautiful scene, which will be revisited in a different, more memorable way near the end of the film.
Night turns into morning, and Watanabe doesn't want to have another night on the town. He then encounters a young girl who used to work at his office, and they eat lunch.
He begins to spend a lot of time with her, and is able to laugh with her hoping part of her liveliness will rub off on him. However, the girl tires of the dour old man, but agrees to meet him for one more dinner. Watanabe tells the girl he is dying and was hoping he could somehow discover from her how to live.
During the dinner, she does something that gives Watanabe his breakthrough. He now knows what he must do. He goes back to his office, and digs out the proposal to fix the cesspool and build a park at the site. He immediately takes the proposal to another city department to shepherd the proposal to completion.
Next, the movie takes us to the wake, where we learn the park was completed. The women who stormed city hall at the beginning of the film arrive to mourn for Watanabe. And they really mourn, while the opportunistic deputy mayor who tried to kill the park proposal, then later took credit for it silently watches. Tellingly, the women have nothing to say to the deputy mayor or the other city officials present.
Kurosawa's camera focuses close-up on face after face, the embarrassed expression on the face of each city official reveals they know the truth they won't admit: It is Watanabe who deserves credit for building the park.
Later, Watanabe's former co-workers debate his dogged dedication to building the park. The officials, by now drunk, recall his final successful struggle to create the park, but cynically misinterpret everything he did.
The fact that they fail to grasp the simple kindness of Watanabe that redeems his otherwise wasted, unhappy life underscores something the funeral party does not comprehend: that Watanabe, not any of them, was the true victor and happy man.
The last person to see Watanabe alive, a policeman on patrol, comes to the wake to honor Watanabe. Watanabe's body was found in the park the night before. But the policeman describes, what seemed to him, an eerie site.
The film's last flashback shows us what he saw: Watanabe is at the park late at night, using the park's swing set while snow gently falls on him. While slowly swinging, he sings "Life is Brief." This scene is one of the most beautiful, memorable experiences in all of cinema. Try watching it without tears welling up in your eyes.
Ikiru is a masterpiece -- It doesn't call attention to itself. It is only afterward that Ikiru's brilliance becomes plain the perfection of style and the dignity and sorrow of Shimura's acting.
By Brian Cole