Essays · Movies

Akira Kurosawa, ‘Ikiru,’ and Being Thankful for The Right Movie at the Right Time

In this essay published in 2015, Rob Hunter professes his thanks for Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru.
Ikiru Kurosawa Hopeful
Toho Films
By  · Published on November 26th, 2015

It’s no great revelation to say that sometimes the right movie at the right time can make all the difference in the world. The loss of a loved one might see you revisiting a film you shared together that now holds a special memory. A rough day can leave you in need of a fun favorite that never fails to make you smile. A bad breakup can leave you craving a repeat viewing of Mike Nichols’ Closer. (Okay, maybe that last one’s just me.)

We all have our own go-to movies, and the common thread between them all is typically our desire to re-watch. They’re films we’ve previously seen, and we know they’re what we need at a given moment. On rare occasions though the mental state we’re in finds a serendipitous pairing with something entirely new. Or, as I recently discovered, with something six decades old.

The FSR team was tasked with sharing brief thoughts on films we’re thankful for in 2015, but I knew almost immediately that not only was the movie I’m most appreciative of this year not actually released in 2015 but also that my thoughts weren’t going to be all that brief.

So apologies in advance for the lack of brevity and the abundance of personal gibberish in this off-brand post that I probably shouldn’t have written.

I started having a hard time earlier this month handling certain world events, and I found myself in the unfamiliar emotional territory. The usual combination of sadness and outrage that comes after tragedies like the ones witnessed in Paris, Beirut, and Mali hit me, but this time my feelings fell disproportionately heavy on the despondent side.

And that’s just not something I’m used to.

I’m the unflappable guy, the one who handles stress and sadness with little to no effort, and while I’ve always felt for the struggles of strangers it was typically easy to mentally and emotionally keep moving forward. I’m a reliably casual cynic too, but where it was usually couched in black comedy and dismissal the increasingly tragic news reports suddenly left me burdened with a weight that I couldn’t quite lift. It’s as close to hopeless as I’ve ever felt.

I found myself drifting in thought in the middle of the day and lacking the energy to joke around, carry a conversation, or focus on writing. I’d suddenly begin tearing up for no reason – this one threw me, and maybe I should be embarrassed, but it is what it is. Close friends asked me if I was okay because they knew I wasn’t “me,” but I couldn’t really talk about it. I didn’t know how, but I also didn’t feel like it would help. Humanity was collectively undeserving of the effort.

I love the people around me and the long-distance friends who are never close enough, but I was just tired of being let down by people in general. If we’re not killing each other at home and abroad we’re championing ignorance at every opportunity with sleights and injuries that have become the norm. It’s exhausting, and I really didn’t see a light at the end for humanity.

Worse, I realized that I’m okay with that. The meteor can hit us now, the virus can spread, the Cthulhu monster can rise up from the bowels of the earth. We’ve had our day, but now we’re constantly and intentionally fucking it up for others. So let’s toss in the towel. Let’s give it over to the cockroaches. Let’s accept the fact that we suck and that the fantasies we choose to believe in are more important than the flesh and blood people all around us. So I moved through the next several days, functional but detached and unsure where to go with it.

And then I sat down for a first-time watch of a sixty-three-year-old Akira Kurosawa film.

There are dozens of movies that never fail to bring a smile to my face with scenes featuring humor, optimism, or Jeff Goldblum, but something about Ikiru made it the perfect film for me at that particular moment. The story is simple in its setup — Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) has spent three decades of his life working at city hall, but when he’s diagnosed with cancer he’s left with the realization that it was a life without meaning, and he sets out to find joy and purpose in his final days.

It’s a thing of devastating beauty, a simple ode to goodness and doing what’s right for your neighbor, of finding value in kindness and a smiling face, but I’m not entirely sure why it clicked as strongly as it did with me. Or course I already knew that there are good people – both real and in the movies – doing good things for others, but watching Watanabe’s efforts and the realizations of others spoke to me louder than my common sense did.

The film features scenes of such intimate sadness — Watanabe tearfully singing “The Gondola Song” to a crowded room, his attempt to tell his son about his illness, the look on his face when he realizes his life meant nothing — but I found myself invested in the man and his quest. Just as Watanabe finally appears to have struck on an idea Kurosawa jumps the film forward to the day after the man’s death as his co-workers and family sit around together at his wake. They celebrate the success of his last days but are quick to credit others until a string of visitors and memories reveal Watanabe’s truth. They see the effect his life had on others, even in just those last few months, and while it hits them differently it’s clear they’re wondering if they’ll be able to claim the same when they die.

Of course, it ends with a reminder that Watanabe’s selflessness is the exception to the norm, that most people aren’t as good, but for me, it’s also a reminder that that exception even exists. It speaks to something bigger too in that beyond the film’s themes the creation of the very film itself is an act of goodwill gifted to the rest of us, something that just might encourage us to greater heights.

I won’t pretend the film itself lifted me out of my funk as friends and time had a major hand in it as well, or that I’m perfectly back to normal, but watching it alone late at night did help me turn the corner. I’m still ready for mankind to be over, but the tears in my eyes at the end of the film consisted of more than just water, salt, and sadness. There was a little bit of hope in there too. That may be cheesy and fuck you for saying so, but after a rough week — one that admittedly pales beside the suffering of others — I’m thankful that I can talk about it, and that I now have a new film to re-watch when the moment calls for it.

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Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.