A Study of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, Part 1 ~ What it Means to Live ~
by Aryeh Kaufman
1. Introduction to Ikiru
Ikiru, meaning “to live” or “living,” was directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1952 under Toho Productions. Kurosawa, with the help of Hashimoto and Oguni, wrote the screenplay for the black and white film at age 42. The film, widely recognized as one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, must be understood within its historical and cultural contexts. Ikiru emerged during Japan’s postwar reconstruction, as the country sought to adapt to its newly inherited capitalism and democracy. Calling for forms of cultural upheaval and self-scrutiny, the film may be viewed as political cinema. Specifically, Ikiru affirms the pride and power of the individual. It promotes breaking traditional ties to larger social groups, such as family and company, for the sake of personal achievement.
Kurosawa’s first postwar film, No Regrets for our Youth (1946), similarly dealt with the national process of recovery and cultural transformation. In that film, Yukie, the daughter of a professor, is groomed for marriage, studying the arts of piano and flower arrangement. Such a passive existence fails to satisfy her, however, and she seeks alternative outlets for her passions that take her beyond the bounds of class and gender associations.  Kurosawa’s work, therefore, seeks to prepare audiences for the spiritual process of Japan’s recovery on the individual level by promoting a more Westernized view of the self.
In general, Kurosawa draws upon numerous sources and texts to inform his films. Ikiru is no exception, combining Western elements from Dostoevsky’s works and Goethe’s Faust with Eastern visions of Zen and the samurai code of Bushido. In terms of Ikiru’s specific origins, Kurosawa explains, “Sometimes I think of my death. I think of ceasing to be…and it is from these thoughts that Ikiru came.”  Furthermore, Fumio Hayasaka, musical composer for several Kurosawa films and the director’s close friend, was consistently ill with tuberculosis, then considered terminal, at the time of Ikiru’s production. In a letter to Kurosawa, Hayasaka openly declared that “for a man, dying for one’s job is one way of showing one’s spirit.”  Such real life inspiration may have shaped Ikiru’s development.
Ikiru is the story of Kanji Watanabe, who, when facing death, finally realizes that he has led a meaningless life—that he has not lived at all. In fact, Watanabe has crafted his life to avoid passion and action. The film often depicts Watanabe, played by Takashi Shimura, in an office environment that emphasizes his physical and emotional absence. Watanabe’s death sentence, presented through an advanced stomach cancer, shocks the protagonist and leads to his despair. After disavowing his prior existence and accepting a search for means to live to the fullest, Watanabe experiments with various approaches to living, each with different moral implications. He explores the immediate fulfillment of the senses in a wild scene of night revelry. He attempts to rely on family bonds and relationships for the support and closeness he needs. And he is driven to live through a youthful coworker who appears to know the secret to his desperate search for aliveness. Finally, in a moment of enlightenment, Watanabe realizes he may in fact bring meaning to his life. By championing a proposal to build a children’s playground in a slum, and by dedicating his remaining days to its fulfillment, Watanabe finds peace and tranquility. The tragedy has turned into an uplifting model of affirmation.
The film presents a unique binary structure that utilizes multiple character perspectives and non-linear time. The first division, covering two-thirds of the film, begins with an omniscient narrator’s presentation of an X-ray of Watanabe’s stomach and the knowledge that he has terminal cancer. This part demonstrates Watanabe’s progress from the discovery of his cancer to the realization that he can proactively impart meaning to his life. The second division of Ikiru also begins with the narrator’s instruction, though this time he informs the audience that Watanabe has passed away. The remainder of this part presents the main character’s wake ceremony at which he is eulogized and remembered, often hypocritically. This second division is characterized by a unity of time and space, unlike the freer narrative structure of the first. At the wake, flashbacks serve to fill in gaps and are presented as literal reconstructions of events. Ironically, viewers are never presented with specific flashbacks in which Watanabe successfully achieves either approval or acceptance of the playground proposal—a key moment for viewers. The mourners fail to present such moments. We merely observe his dogged determination in putting pressure on colleagues, pleading with the Deputy Mayor, painfully crawling down office hallways, and quietly resisting the threats of gangsters.
In passing from the first to second divisions of the film, viewers are forced to consider why it is that the film has not ended with Watanabe’s death. Equipped with recent observation of Watanabe’s suffering, experiences, and ultimate enlightenment, we engage with the mourners of the wake scene in their deliberations. They question why Watanabe behaved the way he did, whether he knew he was approaching death, and whether he in fact brought the playground to fruition. Here we observe how he is perceived and misunderstood by others. Most importantly, through character recollections, we perceive both that Watanabe ultimately found happiness and meaning in life before death and also that his chosen actions led him to such accomplishment.
Ikiru presents infinitely more than an idealism centered on the individual as hero and agent for social change. It presents more than a prescription of “good deeds” for the sake of enlightenment and transformation in modern society. Ikiru proposes that healing one’s spirit is always possible, that a Faust-like search for meaning in earthly and spiritual realms has an answer. Kurosawa answers the existential question posed in Rashomon (1950): how should one live in a meaningless world, where death is certain, individuals are selfish and self-serving, and God does not exist? In that film, Kurosawa altered the original story of Akutagawa to present the woodcutter, also played by Shimura, as redeemer of the world through his final act of taking an orphaned baby into his home. Despite the importance of self-sacrifice and altruism in such a feat, Ikiru and Watanabe demonstrate that of primary importance to the individual, to the rebirth and empowerment of one, is the creative deed. Through the purpose and act of creation, Watanabe proves to resolve many tensions presented through the film, such as the shallowness and insufficiency of immediate satisfaction of the senses contrasted with the need to live a youthful, passionate existence, and the difficulty communicating one’s thoughts and feelings to those supposedly closest to one despite the isolation and loneliness of the individual.
To Read the Rest of Part 1
To Read Part 2