"So, if you had six months to live, what would you do?"

- Mairosu

Ikiru (1952)

AKA: To Live, Doomed

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Producer: Shojiro Motoki

Writer: Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni, Akira Kurosawa

Cast: Takashi Shimura, Nobuo Kaneko, Kyoko Seki, Makoto Kobori, Kumeko Urabe, Yoshie Minami, Miki Odagiri, Kamatari Fujiwara, Minosuke Yamada, Haruo Tanaka, Bokuzen Hidari, Shinichi Himori, Minoru Chiaki, Nobuo Nakamura, Kusuo Abe

Running Time: 141 min.

Plot: A powerful, thought-provoking drama about a petty bureaucrat who discovers that he is dying of cancer. Coming to the realization that his life has been a meaningless quest for following petty company rules, he tries to create one thing of lasting worth.

Availability: This title is available at HKflix.com


MAIROSU'S REVIEW: [spoilers herein]

So, if you had six months to live, what would you do?

Get piss drunk every night and just plain waltz your way to the heaven's (or hell's, obviously) door? Or just lock yourself up and patiently and feverishly await death? Or kill yourself straight away and just get it over with?

Or perhaps, do something worthy while you still have the time?

Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru tackles this very question, and examines, in one stroke, what would he do and what actually is wrong with the humanity and our society.

Meet Watanabe, a timid, faceless clerk. A guy who's been stamping out papers and envelopes his whole life, working quietly as a chief of some section in some city hall. His seal and his desk are his life. His wife died long ago, and his son, well, he's there but there ain't that much of a connection between the two of them. The narrator, who casually follows the story in the opening 90 minutes, informs us that Watanabe has stomach cancer but doesn't know about it yet. No, his work is all that matters.

How bureaucracy works in Japan, we are shown in the opening 15 minutes. A group of young mothers makes a plea to clean out some stagnant water in a downtrodden neighbourhood and is mercilessly swung from one to another public office, as quirkily explained in a bunch of short cuts. In the end, they are returned to where they started - and they send them on their way yet again. The women leave disgruntled, but nothing really changes. Make note of this though, it's important as we move on.

Watanabe, however, does experience some stomachache, so he makes a doctor's appointment. Once there, he takes an x-ray and has a seat in the waiting room. While waiting, a cynical fellow starts talking to him and says how doctors nowadays don't even tell you what's wrong with you - they say you have just an ulcer, but it turns out you have a cancer and six months, maybe year to live. He goes on fleshing out his theory in great detail, and that obviously strikes a nerve with Watanabe ; he knows his number was drawn. Later, a doctor informs him in a rather formal manner he has "a small ulcer". This gravely unsettles Watanabe, who demands truth and asks if he has cancer, but doctor politely derails his theory and just says he will be cured by medicines. Minutes later, he remarks to his colleagues : "he's lucky if he gets six months". Young woman next to him remarks she would have just OD'd on pills if she heard the news - a statement which is met with an antagonist frown by the doctor's assistant.

Totally shaken, Watanabe retreats into his shell. He stays at home and avoids work, setting off a bunch of rumours and office gossiping about who will replace him. He wants to talk to his son about it, but he and his wife are too busy thinking how to coax him into giving up his retirement bonus to them and ensuring their future house. At that point, he also wonders - was he there for his son? He reminisces of his wife's demise, and a conversation with a friend. He is advised to remarry, but he declines it - it would stand in his son's way. Hence, he willingly dumps his life for the welfare of his offspring, slaving away in his office.

One night, Watanabe meets a young writer in a bar and confesses about his poor luck to him. The fellow takes pity on Watanabe, and decides to treat him to a night out - one last hurrah before he goes away, so he can't die without knowing real fun. And off they go into the big city lights, visiting dancehalls, pubs, jazz and western music bars. Initially, Watanabe seems to be enjoying himself, but soon we find out this is not what he's been made for. Binging doesn't fill him with some pleasure. Halfway through their hedonistic trip, Watanabe, in a poignant scene in a seedy bar, requests and old love song about the glory and joy of one's short life. As the piano plays, he starts to sing in a creaky, hoarse voice, his eyes tearing. Clearly, this is not the man cut out for the party life.

The next morning, he is visited by his work colleague, a young woman who submits her resignation because, she says, "nothing ever happens there". Watanabe grants her her wish, and then, all of a sudden, impassionately asks her if she wouldn't mind keeping him some company for the day. He takes her out and buys her new stockings, treats her a lunch and a dinner, they have a fun time. She's happy albeit cautious, and he, well, he seems content he's doing something and spending time in company of someone so full of life energy. As he returns to his home, he decides to confront his son and tell him the whole story, but is cut short before the point and informed that his behaviour is not to be condoned - bringing in young mistresses (a gross misunderstanding as you might imagine) and having no consideration for his own family (mostly on the financial side). The next day, he begs for the young girl to accompany him once more, then, during the evening in a tearoom which is simultaneously hosting a birthday party, he tells her he is dying and asks her, what is it that makes her tick? How is she full of life? She gathers herself and answers that she justs "eats and gets about", but second later, she remarks how she enjoys working in a toy factory. "I think every baby is my friend", says she, and winds up a toy bunny which starts hopping on the table in front of Watanabe.

And then, it clicks to him. It's not too late to make a difference. He jumps up, grabs his coat, and storms out of the tearoom. Just as he's walking down the stairs, the birthday girl from the next door party is climbing up and meeting her reception. A simple detail but an important one - amidst some broken tuneless singing of "happy birthday" in japanglish, Watanabe is a man reborn.

The day after, his coworkers are aghast when they see him at his desk again. He quickly resurrects an old piece of paper with a plan to make a children's playground on a rundown plot somewhere in the slums (remember the women from the start?), and presents it to his colleagues. They quickly start explaining how that is not of their concern and that the proposition was forwarded to another department, but he won't hear any of it - he takes his coat, orders his colleagues to call for a car and goes on to inspect the site in pouring rain. "If you have determination, it can be done", are his words.

Cut to five months later. Watanabe died, and his wake is held. Many people are in paying their tributes - mostly the lot from the city hall. Even the deputy major is there. He is soon enough summoned outside to be queried by the newspaper reporters, who launch a concealed attack on him for taking all the credit for the playground Watanabe built. We learn that Watanabe himself died in the park, and that people think that his death was a silent form of protest - he intentionally left himself out in the cold and died from excessive cold. Nonsense, says the D.M., he died of cancer. He returns into the funeral chambers and goes on a lengthy harangue on how Watanabe was an OK man, but could never accomplish all that he did. It was, of course, HIS work - Watanabe was just a pawn. Everyone, quick to kiss up to the big boss, agrees accordingly.

But then, a group of women from the very neighbourhood in which Watanabe built the playground appears, and requests to pay their tribute. The women, with their eyes glazing from tears, enter the room and mourn loudly in front of the deceased's altar (ah, you saw a Buddhist/Shinto funeral before, so you know what I mean). Their lament is telling - but not as telling as the quick pan to the faces of the city hall workers, who can't bear the shame of their chief claiming all the credit and not saying a word. This is a final straw for the D.M. and his clique - they curtly make their exit and leave the rest inside.

And then, sake starts flowing more freely, and story unwinds. One man, a fellow who uncannily resembles Ti Lung of A Better Tomorrow and Shaw Brothers fame, remarks quickly that they all left so soon because they were unable to face the truth - Watanabe built that park, and they all know it. That theory is initially contrasted by everyone, but as the story progresses, everyone present in the room starts rebuilding the puzzle - we are treated to a myriad of short flashbacks (a probable nod to Rashomon) in which we see how Watanabe, with a feverish zeal, managed to convey the last months of his life into something worthy. He convinced people from department to department to go through with the plan, and he even defied the mayor on the issue. He even stood up to the yakuza who had other plans with the site - when a yakuza goon held him by his collar and shouted at him, "don't you value your own life?", Watanabe just cracked a sour smile and went on with his business. And before you know it, they're all in tears, realizing how they slandered a honest, worthy man at his very own funeral, and how his work should be cherished and his legacy kept.

The last act is provided by a bypassing police officer, who also expresses his wish to pay the tribute to the departed. He also brings in Watanabe's hat he found in the snow after the man died, and says that he saw him late last night out in the cold. With a sorrowful voice, he admits he neglected his duty and should have taken him in - but, he says, Watanabe looked so happy out there. He was sitting in a swing and humming a song, careless as a child. Probably drunk, remarks he.

But he wasn't drunk. One final flashback shows us Watanabe surrounded by the bliss of a freshly built playground for children, sitting carelessly in a swing and humming his favourite song - the same one he ordered in that bar. His crackling voice leaves no illusions - he will soon die, but he dies a happy man. He has no qualms - he did something worthy. He made a mark, he made a difference. That people will not recognize his worth, that is not of his worry. There where he goes, human recognition is not necessary.

Another cut to the wake, where everyone pledges that they should work harder and make a difference. Yes, they will work like Watanabe did! Behind the sliding doors, Watanabe Jr. reveals to his wife that his father left him his full retirement bonus as a last gift - he starts crying realizing how much his father loved him and cared for him.

Soon afterwards, we are forwarded to the same office Watanabe once worked in. The situation is all the same - it's only another man at the desk stamping out papers. He is quickly approached by a clerk who says that there is a complaint about something at some district - he bluntly responds, just forward it elsewhere. The same man who initially objected to the tarnishing of Watanabe's work at the wake stands and leaves in protest (the Ti Lung dude). Nothing has changed. It's all the same. And a thousand Watanabes might come and go, but things will stay this way. One last shot shows us the vision of the playground swamped with joyous children, and young mothers gathering them for their evening meal. Watanabe has left and will be forgotten, but his soul remains alive in the hearts of people he helped and in this very playground.

What Kurosawa accomplished here is not only a poetic, lyrical vision of a dying man who decides to do something at the end - he also launched a scathing critic of Japanese way of living and their social system. He openly ridiculed bureaucracy and mocked traditions. He puts an individual ahead of the group - something very un-Japanese. He scoffs at the "honourable suicide" and the "warrior tradition". He effectively discards the old Japanese proverb, "the nail which stands out will be hammered down". His hero - and a real hero he is - Watanabe is a form of protest in itself. He will not be hammered down. Watanabe's character also benefits from a strong performance by Takashi Shimura, probably one of the finest actors this world ever knew, who really does a remarkable job as a man who descends to the lowest pits and goes out on a high, carried by a will to change.

A conflict with traditional values of Japan and its transition to the modern era is something which Kurosawa would elaborate on later on in his films - for example, the Yojimbo/Sanjuro saga, in which he gives us a satirical view of the samurai caste and casts another light on the "honorable warrior" stereotype.

But that's a whole another story.