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Film / Ikiru

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"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. Loosely adapted from the Leo Tolstoy novella The Death Of Ivan Ilyich, the movie focuses on Kanji Watanabe (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura), who 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, on land coveted by developers for a new shopping arcade. 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 Jidaigeki), 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.

Almost always referred to by its Japanese title; while this has more or less always been true, it also helps distinguish it from the much later film adaptation of the completely unrelated Chinese novel, To Live.

Living, a British remake set in 1953 Britain, starring Bill Nighy and co-scripted/co-produced by Kazuo Ishiguro, was released in 2022.

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.
  • Doomed Protagonist: Watanabe realizes early in the movie that he is dying of stomach cancer. The rest of the movie follows his attempt to find meaning in his last days.
  • Driven to Suicide: Discussed obliquely. After Watanabe receives his diagnosis of "ulcer" (that he knows is a lie), we see the doctors and nurse in the office talking about his real prognosis, that he likely has only six months. When asked what she would do if she had that kind of cancer, she says "See that bottle of veronal?" (Veronal is a kind of barbiturate that is easy to overdose on), suggesting that she would end things early if she knew that that kind of cancer awaited her.
  • 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.
    • Another flashback sequence shows how Watanabe and his son drifted apart.
  • Funeral Cut: The first half ends with Watanabe declaring that he's going to put all of his effort into getting a children's park built, and rushing out of city hall; the next shot is of a mourning portrait of Watanabe at his funeral several months later.
  • Good Hair, Evil Hair: Bokuzen Hidari's character sports a toothbrush mustache, but has less of the common traits associated with it.
  • 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.
  • Happiness Realized Too Late: Inverted; Watanabe realizes that his life's been wasted in a soulless job, only when he discovers that he has terminal cancer. He spends his remaining days on a project that would leave him satisfied once he finally passes away.
  • The Hero Dies: Watanabe dies three quarters of the way through the film. The rest of his story is presented in flashback via the memories of those attending the funeral.
  • Humble Hero: Watanabe's goals are modest — one playground to make some children and their mothers happy — and he succeeds largely because he simply doesn't care if he gets any credit for it.
  • 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 but another patient's warning about rosy diagnoses prevents that.
  • Like You Were Dying: Watanabe is a powerfully humble take on this, as he's willing to bear any discomfort and face any humiliation in order to achieve his goal, including standing silently outside the Deputy Mayor's office hour after hour for days on end before the Deputy finally caves before Watanabe's unflinching sincerity.
  • May–December Romance: Subverted. Watanabe has no romantic interest in Toyo when he spends time with her. People, including Toyo assumed this. He however just wants to know how to live like a young person.
  • Medal of Dishonor: Watanabe's attendance award, as it reminds him of the years he wasted in bureaucracy.
  • The Nicknamer: Toyo is this to her coworkers at the office, though she usually keeps them to herself. She shares several with Wantanabe on a day out, including one she made for him, "The Mummy" for his dull plodding labor. Wantanabe admits that it fit him well.
  • 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.
    • Demonstrated during the opening sequence when the neighborhood mothers present their playground proposal and receive the royal runaround as each office fobs them off on another until they wind up right back where they started, Watanabe's planning department.
    • This is 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!"
  • Obsessed with Perfect Attendance: Kanji Watanabe has never missed a day of work, even going in while his son was in the hospital getting his appendix taken out. When Watanabe learns he has terminal stomach cancer, however, he regrets having wasted so much time in the office and considers the perfect attendance certificate he was awarded a mark of shame.
  • 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.
  • Recycled In Space: The Death of Ivan Ilych IN MODERN DAY JAPAN.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Subverted in that Wantanabe doesn't reform until he knows he is dying and specifically after his final meeting with Toyo.
  • Setting Update: The original Tolstoy novella took place contemporaneously to its publication in 1886 and was set in Tsarist Russia. The Kurosawa film, meanwhile, transplants the story to contemporary Tokyo.
  • Sleazy Politician: The deputy mayor, who tries to take all the credit for the park he tried to quash. 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.
  • Spiritual Antithesis: A couple of scenes are this to a scene from Kurosawa's own Stray Dog (1949). Whereas the veteran police detective, also played by Shimura, in the earlier film is a loving husband and father, and is good-naturedly dismissive of the many department commendations he's been awarded compared to the actual deeds he's accomplished, Watanabe is a widower and can't communicate with his son, and now sees all his work commendations are meaningless as he's never actually accomplished anything.
  • Too Broken to Break: Watanabe has stomach cancer and as a result is expected only to live another six months. He makes getting a children's park built his final project. At one point a Yakuza boss who wanted to build a block of restaurants on the spot where the park was getting built threatens to kill Watanabe; Watanabe just grins after hearing the threat, which completely unnerves the Yakuza boss and his underlings.
  • Trauma Swing: Inverted. Watanabe dies at night, in the snow, on a swing — but the mood of the scene is anything but "traumatized".
  • 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.
  • Vast Bureaucracy: Showcased extremely well in the opening, as each department refers the mothers to a different department for the proper preceding paperwork until they wind up back at the same section they started with.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: About six months elapse between Watanabe's death and his diagnosis.