March 29, 1956 [Ikiru/To Live]

Ikiru means “to live,” and the film’s director, Akira Kurosawa, frightens me more than a little in urging this most basic instinct, offering tenderness pinioned beneath the bald-faced truth of suffering as just another day at work. Kurosawa knows that mercy begins in suffering--and sometimes rises like a wind beneath sails, and moves everything in victory.

But danger abounds. We are asked to frown at the bureaucrat with stomach cancer, Kanji Watanabe--in constant pain, always half-hunched, grimacing, making an effort just to look you in the eye. We are told he has wasted his life, he is already dead, and so on. It seems almost cruel--until we move from his desk to an extended montage in which a group of local women are sent from department to department within the impenetrable bureaucracy, thwarted in their attempt to have a fetid cistern filled and made into a park. The sequence is inexorable in its circuit and return to Watanabe's desk, where he still sits, greasy and staring, silent and still. He may not be the villain, but he'll do.

Pain also has its circuit here, moving from fear to mercy to victory. As Watanabe confronts his death, he first locks himself even more deeply inside; there's a perfect scene, after he discovers he has cancer, in which he inches along a city street, surrounded by others, passing a construction site, within which flashes of light burst--all in complete and oblivious silence--and then he steps into the street, is almost hit by a truck, and the noise of the world drops on him like lightning, loud and paralyzing. At that moment, his interior world, which is all he seems to have--and which has failed him--begins to slide off his frame.

At first he turns to the past--which, like everything inside him, lets him down: his wife's death, small but lasting errors with his son. But then he resolves to live in the moment--well, at least to live it up, drinking and gadding about. But this, too, is bitter in his mouth--literally: as he says of the sake he pours down, it’s “like paying myself back with poison for the way I lived all these years." He latches onto a young and bright-eyed fellow-worker, Toyo, cute as a kitten but desperate to escape the bureaucracy. He spends a week with--and plenty of yen on--her, clinging until his grasp frightens her. He explains that as a child he almost drowned—“darkness everywhere, and nothing for me to hold onto, no matter how hard I try." He wants her to show him what to do. But all she has is her new job in a factory that makes wind-up bunnies. At first she disdains it, insisting she's just like him, simply going to work, eating, sleeping--but confesses that when she's in the bunny factory it is as though she is "holding every baby in Japan." Cute stuff, but more: Watanabe's eyes widen, and he realizes what he must do.

His pain becomes fear, his fear leads him to seek escape--but where? After all, he carries his doom with him, in his gut. So fear becomes a dead end (so to speak), and he has to return the way he came, and find--not mercy, but a way to give mercy. Watanabe goes back to his office--at "Human Relations," of course--and dedicates himself to that park, to one small real thing in the real world.

--And then he dies, and the rest of the story is told by his increasingly drunk fellow-workers at his wake--and it is indeed a “wake,” as we see his acceptance--of both death and the job that needs doing--itself awakened. How lucky he is, with something to do, something he can actually lay his hands on--and in the twisted bowels of city government, no less, where one would expect to find nothing but its own kind of cancer. Watanabe, though, bringing his disease with him, can smell out corruption, and knows how to lower his sweaty brow and carve away the stink--but in many ways tenderly, like love approaching a wound bright and waiting for the right hands.


  1. You have chosen to write about my officially designated favourite most for its philosophical content, but also it's restropective structure, the beautiful ending on the swing, the symposia at which the life and its final part of the ex-official is talked about over cups of sake.

    A man who sees death on his horizon is an awakened person and in fact each one, even the healthy amongst us are in the same position as Watanabe, though it is a quirk or defect of human thinking to be able to confront this grave reality and not be crushed by it. The film illustrates that daily life is the ultimate reality and life is meant to be spent doing even a bit for one's brethren.


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