“Doesn’t it make you furious when they walk all over you this way?”
“No. I can’t afford to hate people. I haven’t got that kind of time.”

Akira Kurosawa’s epic Samurai films are among the greatest movies ever made. But it is a quiet, intimate story about a very different sort of hero, a mid-level bureaucrat confronted with the futility of his own life, that may be the director’s masterpiece. Certainly it’s one of his most spiritual films.

IKIRU is the story of Mr Watanabe, the paper-shifting Section Chief of the municipal Public Affairs Department. For decades he has hoarded his money, his time and his affections until, with only months left to live, he discovers he no longer knows how to spend them. Played with wrenching vulnerability by Takashi Shimura, this may be the definitive portrait of a man who, examining his life, discovers that it may not be worth living.

The film opens with a stark X-ray image and the unemotional declaration that “This stomach belongs to the protagonist of our story. At this point, our protagonist has no idea he has this cancer.” He shifts papers from one pile to another. He cleans his rubber stamp (using the cover page of a efficiency manual he created decades ago, when his job still mattered). He peers over his glasses at a young woman who dares interrupt the decorum of the office by laughing and telling stories. She will not last much longer in this sour, cramped place. But then, neither will Mr Watanabe.

In a gorgeously choreographed sequence unbroken by a single edit, the frame crowded with people moving around a doctor’s waiting room, “our protagonist” moves closer and closer to the camera as if to escape a fellow patient and his news that Watanabe’s litany of symptoms amounts to a death warrant. Suddenly we cut to a distant perspective: we see this shrunken, frightened man sitting framed in a doorway, hunched and alone as the doctor calls his name. The contrast is stark, breath-taking, heart-breaking.

Henry David Thoreau remarked famously that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. But it is a characteristic of wisdom not to do desperate things,” and the rest of this film is taken up with Mr Watanabe’s getting of wisdom, with his efforts to escape the mummified life he has settled for.

Kurosawa did not call himself a Christian, and much of the spirituality of the film is distinctly Asian, with its themes of honour and shame, its emphasis on family and community over the individual, and its celebration of the enobling power of “real work” (I couldn’t help thinking of the wonderfully strange SPIRITED AWAY). Still, there is also something about IKIRU that is deeply Christian. Kurosawa was steeped in the writings of Fyodor Dostoevsky, having just completed his screen adaptation of The Idiot – the story of a man who experiences the joy of being alive only when he faces a firing squad. Indeed, the direct inspiration for IKIRU is likely The Death Of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy – the other great Christian novelist of nineteenth-century Russia.

Once he learns of his condition, Mr Watanabe spends a night in the company of his “good Mephistopheles,” a conscience-stricken novelist who shows him the pleasures of the city. As Watanabe knocks back expensive saki, his guide (looking like a Japanese Tom Waits) proclaims to a skeptical bartender, “Ecce homo – behold this man. This man bears a cross called cancer. He’s Christ. If you were diagnosed with cancer, you’d die on the spot. But not this fellow. That’s the moment he started living. Right?” It’s a sadly ironic moment: this pathetic Christ figure is a lost and desperate little man, drinking his way to an even earlier death.

Still, there is something prophetic in these words. Before the film is over we will see the frail figure of this prematurely aged man, bent in pain, resolutely making his way along a bureaucratic via dolorosa, a suffering civil servant whose passion leads him through the halls of Tokyo as resolutely as Mel Gibson’s Jesus makes his way through the streets of Jerusalem.

“Ikiru” means “to live,” and this is in every way a resurrection story: a simple man is desperate to find new life as he faces his own death. Silver screens have seen an abundance of carpe diem films; quirky stories like HAROLD & MAUDE and JOE VS. THE VOLCANO, Peter Weir projects like DEAD POETS’ SOCIETY and FEARLESS, and a spate of more recent films like PLEASANTVILLE, AMERICAN BEAUTY and even ABOUT SCHMIDT. Christians are often drawn to these movies and their secular conversions: we find parallels to our own experiences of rebirth, the sense that “all things are become new.” But as Frederic Buechner said, “The world speaks of the holy in the only language it knows, which is a worldly language” – it’s hard to get away from the fact that these parables of rebirth often end up looking like little more than apologetics for self-indulgence.

Like the protagonists of so many films, Mr Watanabe yearns to “seize the day,” to come forth like Lazarus from his tomb and reclaim his life. But this soft-spoken film is profoundly different from the rest when it shows what a man might do with his day once he seizes it, and in the rigorously unsentimental way it observes the effect of his decision on the people around him.

Mr Watanabe discovers a hard road to a kind of redemption. It may be that he walks in the footsteps of Christ.


The Criterion disk is a beauty, with two very fine documentary features; an excerpt from the series “Akira Kurosawa: To Create Is Beautiful” dealing specifically with IKIRU, and “A Message from Akira Kurosawa (2000)” featuring interviews with the director on the set of his later films. The Stephen Prince commentary track is packed with information that reveals many of the film’s subtleties, though I did find his delivery terribly dull, and quickly tired of the pedantic sociological analysis in the mix – there’s a regrettable similarity to Ferris Bueller’s history teacher (“Anyone? Anyone?…”).

I was particularly pleased with the translation of subtitles, having previously owned only the Mei-Ah version: “Honestly he died in 20 years ago. Still alive, wanna to do something. But now the eagerness is no longer. This loses in… The busy body of the gov’t.” Thank goodness for Criterion.