The Mayans, the wise race of ancients who created hot cocoa, set December 21st, 2012 as the end date of their Calendar, which the intelligent and logical amongst us know signifies the day the world will end, presumably at 12:21:12am, Mountain Time. From now until zero date, we will explore the 50 films you need to watch before the entire world perishes. We don’t have much time, so be content, be prepared, be entertained.
The Film: Ikiru (1952)
The Plot: Upon inferring the news of his close, impending death within a matter of months due to cancer, long-time city bureaucrat Kanji Watanabe (played by Takashi Shimura) struggles through his final days fending off his illness as well as deep depression. As he reflects upon the trajectory of his life he looks back and realizes the damaged relationship with his son and comes to understand the relative insignificance of his job duties over the past decades of city service. After a few weeks of shuffling through different attempts to find some temporary form of happiness he gets invigorated one day at work when he stumbles upon the request of some lower-end neighborhood tenants seeking city approval to fix up their community playground. With only a few months left to live Watanabe fights both time and seemingly endless layers of bureaucracy to see one positive accomplishment come to fruition before he passes.
Considering all of the pictures that I’ve seen from Akira Kurosawa (personally, my favorite filmmaker) Ikiru is the one that I’ve recalled in vivid detail even from the first initial viewing of it. From the list of his masterpieces it’s the one that I remember most often and the one I remember the most of. It could be due to it being an atypical film in his filmography – especially in his earlier years – in that it’s neither a samurai epic, nor a noir crime thriller and it doesn’t feature his most oft-used leading man Toshiro Mifune. It may also be his most dramatic feature and by consequence possibly the most emotional. It’s both devastatingly and beautifully humanistic in equal measure in that it portrays us at both our worst and our best.
It’s an inspirational underdog story as well as a display and challenge to the viewer to want to be better in some of the most simplest of ways where we can be and don’t think to be. For Western audiences it’s very Frank Capra, and it retains the best of the romanticism of Frank Capra without abandoning a sense of realism in favor of sticking its toes in a realm of Hollywood fantasy; and whereas some of the best of Capra’s All-American characters, such as Mr. Smith and Mr. Deeds, are fish out of water they’re still prized fish in just about any water, unlike Kanji Watanabe. Smith and Deeds appear out of their league, but in fact they’re just playing the game differently and it takes everyone else time to understand that they are in fact the ones winning. Watanabe is more like the bat-boy being thrown in to the game and its through extreme persistence that he’s able to succeed. Despite barely being able to lift a bat he just doesn’t stop swinging. He’s either going to finally connect, or he’s going to die while trying.
To cap it off, the photographic magnificence throughout almost all of Kurosawa’s pictures, in Ikiru one will find what could be the signature and most iconic (and for lack of a better word, lovely) image of Kurosawa’s career. With snow slowly falling around him, his goal realized and existence satisfyingly purposeful Watanabe sits and swings with a calm bliss in the new playground that came to be because of his ceaseless action for good; and singing Life is Brief with new meaning and perspective. It’s a glorious moment captured gloriously.
But why spend 143 minutes watching this film when you only have 484,873 minutes left alive?
For as much pessimism and depression the film is capable of inducing at the outset considering the dire circumstances of the lead and his outlook towards himself the film convincingly pulls a 180 with the character resulting in a film that inspires not only optimism towards the individual, but optimism about humanity. It conveys just how great an average person can be to inspire change, and in the off-chance that the world ends but *you* don’t then chances are average little you is capable of persevering to do great things for the human race, of you. At the very least there won’t be any other people to form a uselessly complex bureaucratic system and therefore can build as many playgrounds as you want. For yourself.