"So, if you had six
months to live, what would you do?"
To Live, Doomed
Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni, Akira
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,
Time: 141 min.
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.
This title is available at HKflix.com
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
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
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
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
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
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
But that's a whole another story.
MAIROSU'S RATING: 10/10