Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Starring Takashi Shimura
Ikiru (to live) is a film about a dying man struggling to find the meaning of his life. We are introduced to Kanji Wantanabe (Shimura) with a narrator telling us he has terminal stomach cancer as we see an X-Ray of his illness. The narrator tells us that Watanabe has wasted his life and never truly lived. We are told of his cancer before he is. Wanatnabe is so painfully unaware of his life that we the audience know more about him than he knows about himself, and this is within the opening frames of the film. He is a low level bureaucrat who spends his days moving paper from one side of his desk to the other, mindlessly stamping his days away.
Watanabe finds out that he has cancer in the doctors office waiting room. Its not a doctor that tells him but a patient in the waiting room. The stranger tells him what the doctor will say and how he will cover up the severity of his condition. When the doctor tells Wantanabe everything the stranger told him in the waiting room, it has a chilling effect. This is the moment our protagonist starts to look back on his life. Its a turning point where he finally starts to examine the choices he has made that will be the sum total of his life.
I immediately felt sympathy for Wantanabe. Everything and everyone in the film including the narrator look down on him for wasting his life. Here is a man who never lived until he was faced with his impending death. How many of us can say that we have made something monumental of our lives? I assume that most of us look at our lives as somewhat wasted, on some level. My sympathy was a defensive reaction. It feels like the narrator was talking to the audience or at the very least me. So, when I felt bad for our protagonist I was really feeling sorry for myself. I was beating myself up right away for wasting hours in dark theaters, playing video games, reading books I've already read, watching mindless television and avoiding life. Not living.
We all have routines that we should break up more often. I am proud of some things and ashamed of others, I have lived my life. I can say that I have wasted weeks if not years on empty pursuits and films like this remind me to step outside of my normal routine. The beautiful thing (one of the many beautiful things) about this film is how measured it defines a life that was well lived. How what might seem like a small thing can make a life one that was worth living. Building a park, a place for children to play, its a small triumph but one that is obtainable and a wonderful thing to hang your hat on.
The last act of the film deals with legacy, about how the choices we make can anger, confuse and inspire the ones we leave behind. We have no control over these things and shouldn't burden our lives with how others will interpret us. It feel like Kurosawa is telling us to live with meaning will prepare us to die at peace.
Ikiru (The Criterion Collection) on DVD