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Criterion Files #221: Ikiru

By  · Published on January 12th, 2011

In 1950 Akira Kurosawa released what many consider to be his first true masterpiece, which started two decades full of multiple masterpieces, in the pioneering and uniquely structured Rashomon. That film told the story of an unsolved murder in feudal Japan causing a series of conflicting stories and falsely witnessed accounts as told by the survivors (and even the murdered himself from beyond the grave) of the incident. Each participant had their own side of the story to tell and each had their own personal motivations for blatantly lying about what really happened.

That film paints a very pessimistic picture on the psychological side of the human condition. We will lie and we will do it, generally, for reasons as superficial as maintaining a perceived public image. We will do this willingly and with conviction to the point that the human word becomes about as reliable as a thumbtack holding up a mirror. We must either hope the mirror is small and unimportant, or get ourselves a lot of thumbtacks to support the one.

Two years following this first masterpiece (already eleven pictures into his career) Kurosawa would create a film that not only portrays us at our worst – in almost the exact same way as Rashomon no less, accompanied by other character flaws – he would also offer us the antithesis and he would do it using some of the same individuals he characterized earlier in the film as weak and/or fake.

Ikiru, while not cut of the same piece of wood as the samurai epics Kurosawa would later become most known for, may be his most dense picture and truly indicative of what it is to be human.

Fear, Flaws and Fragility

Like Rashomon before it, Ikiru has no reservations about showing us exactly the ways in which we let our imperfections steer us wrong. The story of an aging bureaucrat dying of stomach cancer trying to find meaning, purpose and a sense of ‘living’ in his final days is used to expose us at our worst and a system almost built on a lack of commitment to responsibility. It doesn’t portray us at our worst in that it illustrates just how bad we are capable of being, it portrays us at our worst in that it depicts us exactly as bad as most of us really are. Not only will we lie about murder to save face, we will reduce the accomplishments of others in order to cope with shame. That is, until you get some sake in us, and the truth can then pour out.

What makes Ikiru such a special picture in relation to Kurosawa’s famous samurai films is its protagonist. People don’t necessarily have a problem denying the recognition of achievement, but we do when achieved by someone like Kanji Watanabe (played by Kurosawa favorite Takashi Shimura in what may be the role most representative of his versatility when compared to their next film together, Seven Samurai), even if that achievement is represented by the construction of a playground. However, in order to get that playground made it took a degree of persistence through layers upon layers and walls in front of thicker walls of bureaucracy in order to even get to the one person most needed to gain approval for the project – just to have that person initially refuse.

It would appear to almost require a special individual in order to get through all of the red tape; when in fact it can be cut by the most average person you can think of. In fact, one who is even occasionally awkwardly creepy at times. All it takes is a particular circumstance to motivate someone incredibly regular to achieve something incredibly spectacular and when that happens we’re quick to focus the magnifying glass on ourselves – and lie to everyone about what we see.

It’s unfortunate that, in this case, the particular circumstance that made Watanabe realize that he needed to accomplish something meaningful was coming to terms with his own expiration date. It isn’t until he learns, or, in fact, infers the news of his having just a few more months to live that he begins to reflect back on what he’s done with his life since the death of his wife twenty-five years prior and thirty years into a needless job of denying public service and progress to help maintain a façade of order and compliance; it isn’t until a few weeks after that he begins to look past his failures as a father and ends his temporary empty search to live it up and eventually embraces his position and minor clout within the broken and complex system in order to get just one thing to come to fruition before he leaves.

On his journey there he experiences a lifetime’s worth of emotions and mental states that truly define the fragility of the human psyche. One day you can sing a song that encapsulates you at your most desperate and hopeless to the point of sheer sadness and tears – and another day, just before you’ve done all you wanted to achieve you can sing the same song at the moment of your greatest triumph to the point of sheer self-satisfaction and tears of joy.

Unlike the Rest

There are undoubtedly two very distinct picture types that Kurosawa is most known for; the samurai actioner and the crime drama. Most of his great films fall into one of those two genres, and probably all of the popular selections of his most accomplished works do. All except this one.

While Kurosawa considered John Ford amongst his most direct influences – and you can certainly see this in his samurai films resembling some of the sensibilities and grandness of Ford’s Westerns – he also had somewhat of an affinity for the pictures of Frank Capra and you can probably most recognize that in Ikiru. There’s a certain disdain on display for the corruption of the human soul as one gains prowess and power within a system that’s gotten so convoluted that the installation of a toilet bowl probably requires months of planning and finagling by someone who really just needs to go to the bathroom.

However, also very much like Capra, Kurosawa shows that even in the most broken societal and governmental structures there’s hope that one person can make a difference to many if they choose to, or not let themselves get in their own way of doing it, and that one person can influence the habits of many if the many will pay attention and choose to adopt – or not talk themselves out of adopting.

Hopefully, when it happens, it doesn’t take facing mortality for one to find the drive to find themselves sitting serenely on a swing, basking in their feat singing “Life is Brief”…and being “so completely happy.”

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