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Film: Ikiru

I can't afford to hate people. I don't have the time for that.

Ikiru (To Live) is a 1952 film by Akira Kurosawa about the death of a petty bureaucrat. Kanji Watanabe has served in a monotonous bureaucratic position in City Hall for 30 years, providing for a son who only seems to care about his money. He is seemingly content with this barely living routine, until a trip to the doctor reveals that he is dying of stomach cancer. Suddenly awakened to the meaninglessness of his life so far, Watanabe searches in vain for a way to give his life purpose, trying dissipation, hedonism and a (platonic) relationship with a much younger woman before finally realizing that the key just happens to have been sitting on his own desk all along: a plan to build a playground in a poor neighborhood. Something that only someone with his skills, developed over a lifetime spent in the bureaucracy, is going to be able to get accomplished.

Considered Kurosawa's finest film to be set in contemporary Japan (most of his famous films are jidai-geki), it was the film he made right before Seven Samurai, and if not for its proximity, Ikiru would probably be held in even higher regard. As it stands, the film is considered an absolute classic from a master filmmaker, with Takashi Shimura giving the performance of his career.


This Film contains examples of:

  • Anachronic Order: After Watanabe finds his purpose, we jump to his funeral, and the intervening time is told in flashbacks and reminiscing.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Watanabe dies having finally accomplished something, but his coworkers go back to meaningless busywork. The good news is at least one of them is not pleased with this state of affairs. The seed has been sown...
  • The Determinator: How Watanabe manages to get the park approved, continually pestering the bureaucracy until it gives in.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Watanabe gives his last days alive tirelessly trying to get the park built, without rest. In the end, the park is built, and though Watanabe may die, he can go happily, as he now knows that he redeemed himself, and made his life matter.
  • Empty Shell: Watanabe at the start of the film, having worked countless years in his meaningless job. It takes news of his cancer to ignite emotion back into him.
  • Flashback: How the process of making the park is told.
  • Genki Girl: Toyo certainly applies.
  • Go Out with a Smile: Watanabe dies, sitting on a swing in the park that he gave his last days to create, in the snow, quietly singing his favorite song to himself.
  • Gray Rain of Depression: Reversed, dying Watanabe is actually so happy to finally complete his quest that he cheerfully plays and whistles in a swing under a heavy rain/snow.
  • The Hero Dies: Watanabe dies halfway through the film. The rest of his story is presented in flashback via the memories of those attending the funeral.
  • In Vino Veritas: At Watanabe's wake, Ohno says that any one of them would have done the same thing Watanabe had done if they knew they were dying. Ohara, the drunkest one there, calls him out on his wishful thinking.
    Ohara: Compared to Watanabe-san, we're all just worthless scum!
    • Also subverted, as the only other man who says precisely what he means and feels is completely sober.
  • Irony
    Novelist: "How tragic that man can never realize how beautiful life is until he is face to face with death."
  • Let Them Die Happy: The doctors at the clinic try to cover up the cancer to do this with Watanabe, but another patient's warning about rosy diagnoses prevents that.
  • Medal of Dishonor: Watanabe's attendance award, as it reminds him of the years he wasted in bureaucracy.
  • Obstructive Bureaucrat: The bureaucrats at City Hall, who put on a show of activity while jealously guarding their turf. Watanabe himself is one of them at the beginning of the film, which gives him the insider knowledge he uses to eventually subvert and reject this trope.
    • This is also a Discussed Trope during his wake, with one of the members stating "The thing is, in order to clean up a garbage can somewhere, you need a garbage can full of paperwork!"
  • Recycled INSPACE: The Death of Ivan Illych IN MODERN DAY JAPAN
  • Politeness Judo: Watanabe accomplishes the seemingly impossible by asking very nicely, bowing, and (politely) refusing to go away until he gets what he is asking for.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Watanabe consistently fails to tell his family he's dying, or that he's seeing a former subordinate. As a result, his family thinks he's seeing a gold digger, and treat him like crap even when he does try to explain things. By the time they realize the truth, he's dead.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Subverted in that Wantanabe doesn't reform until he knows he is dying and specifically after his final meeting with Toyo.
  • Sleazy Politician: The deputy mayor, who tries to take all the credit for the park he tried to quash.
    • Works as a serious Crowning Moment of Heartwarming too, as the women who lived in the neighborhood knew exactly who they had to thank for the park's creation.
  • Shout-Out: Kurosawa was heavily influenced by Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life and both films have very similar overall messages and structures. Kurosawa's approach is less idealistic.
  • Two Act Structure: The first act being Wantanabe coming to terms with his illness and the second a posthumous re-counting at his wake of his building the park/ruminations on the man himself
  • Your Days Are Numbered
RashomonCreator/Akira KurosawaSeven Samurai
The HustlerRoger Ebert Great Movies ListIn a Lonely Place
Ichi the KillerJapanese FilmsInvasion of the Neptune Men
IfCreator/The Criterion CollectionIn the Mood for Love
High NoonFilms of the 1950sInvasion U.S.A. (1952)

alternative title(s): Ikiru
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