The Japanese economy may have embarked on a path towards recovery thanks to the stimulus of the Korean War, but in the early 1950s many might have thought it too soon to ask if survival in itself was enough yet this is exactly what disillusioned civil servant Kenji Watanabe finds himself asking after receiving the devastating news that he has advanced stomach cancer and year at most to live. “To live” is apt translation of Akira Kurosawa’s intensely moving existential melodrama, Ikiru (生きる), which tackles the compromises of the salaryman dream head on along with those of the contradictions of the sometimes dehumanising post-war society.
As the opening voice over reveals to to us, Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is man who died long ago or perhaps has never truly been alive. In some senses, he is nothing more than an embodiment of the seal he uses to stamp documents day in day out, a mere piston in an ever turning machine of relentless bureaucracy. A young woman, Miss Odagiri (Miki Odagiri), working in the Public Affairs department loudly reads out a joke someone has written about their boss, Watanabe, who has taken not a single day’s holiday in 30 years suggesting that it’s less that he fears city hall will grind to a halt without him than they’ll suddenly figure out city hall has no need of him at all. The irony is city hall does indeed grind to a halt in Watanabe’s absence as he, unthinkably, fails to turn up for work for days on end as the papers pile ever higher on his desk. “Nothing moves here without his seal” one of the workers admits, bewildered by this sudden break with protocol while salivating over its implications in the possibility that Watanabe’s chair may soon be empty.
Yet Watanabe’s crisis is that he’s realised he’s wasted his life on a pointless bureaucratic career that’s done little more than keep a roof over his head. Even the roof is a fairly modest one and it’s clear that his grown up son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) considers him to be a stingy old miser, unable to understand why he’s never spent so much as a penny on himself and lives in a kind of self-imposed austerity. Perhaps to Watanabe this is what constitutes properness. He’s done everything he was supposed to do, got a steady job at city hall and eventually became the head of department, but now he feels foolish and lonely. Mitsuo and his wife seem to resent him and talk openly about their plans to use their inheritance, along with Watanabe’s retirement bonus, for a downpayment on a “modern” home the polar opposite of the pre-war townhouse where the family continue to live.
Mitsuo and Kazue (Kyoko Seki) are perhaps emblems of the increasingly empty consumerism of the post-war era, emotionally disconnected from Watanabe and seeking only the flashy and new. Miss Odagiri, the young woman from work, immediately says that she’d love to live in a home like Watanabe’s rather than the crowded multiple occupancy flat she currently inhabits with her family. Cheerful and outgoing, Odagiri is on the other hand a symbol of a new generation that wants something more out of life than simple material comfort and might even be willing to trade it for a small amount of happiness. Having worked at city hall for all of 18 months, she decides that she just can’t take it anymore and is quitting to get a job in a factory making toy rabbits that she says allow her to feel as if she’s making friends with all the babies in Japan.
To that extent, Watanabe is himself also a baby craving Odagiri’s company admitting that he envies her youth and vitality in realising he squandered his own and will never get it back. How uncomfortable it must be for her, their final meeting in a restaurant sandwiched between a loving couple and teenage girl’s birthday party as Watanabe, gaunt and shrunken, claws at the air and begs her to help him live. Yet even within the grotesquery the tone is ironic, the strains of “Happy Birthday” accompanying Watanabe down the stairs as a the high school climbs up to meet her friends signalling his (re)birth as a man with purpose and determination. Just as Odagiri had found meaning in the rabbit, Watanabe finds it deciding to get a playground built over a post-war swamp in the slums filled with raw sewage and mosquitos that left the local children ill.
Yet children’s parks aren’t particularly profitable which is presumably why the petition to build one had been kicked all round city hall in the infernal wheel of bureaucracy in which Watanabe too is trapped. “You call this democracy?” one of the women bringing the petition asks, taking the clerk to task complaining that all they do is fob them off insisting it’s someone else’s responsibility to help while determined only to guard their own turf. “You’re not supposed to do anything at city hall” someone ironically adds, “the best way to protect your place in this world is to do nothing at all”. Watanabe did nothing at all for 30 years and it got him nowhere, his dedication to his job disrupting his relationship with his son though Watanabe is ironically one of the most emotional men and engaged fathers seen on screen in the post-war era.
After his death, in the park he helped build for which the deputy mayor has taken credit, his colleagues put him on trial at the wake trying to work out why he did it and whether or not he even knew he was dying seeing as he told no one close him not even the son whom he felt he could no longer trust. They deny his role while both praising and condemning his passion as somehow improper, disrupting the dispassionate rhythms of the bureaucratic machine with human emotion. It was only coincidence, they say. The deputy mayor wanted an election and the yakuza wanted to turn the swamp into a red light district. “Did he think he could just build a park?” someone adds, bemused by his effrontery as a man from Public Affairs straying into the Parks Department’s territory. You have to protect your turf after all. Finally moved by Watanabe’s last ditch bid to make his life mean something, to feel alive and know he has lived, the the drunken salarymen, all but one who retreats to look at Watanabe’s photo above the altar, swear to follow his example.
But of course the bureaucratic wheel keeps turning, another dangerous sewage problem diverted to another department continuing the literal pollution of the capitalistic post-war society. A kind of ghost story, Kurosawa lights Shimura from below, shadows cast across his gaunt face even by his “rakish” new hat while his huge eyes have a somehow haunted, grotesque quality filled with hungry desperation. Yet it’s to childhood that Watanabe eventually returns, “perfectly happy” sitting on a swing singing a song from his youth about the price age while surrounded by snow and at last painfully, absurdly alive.
Ikiru screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 4th & 15th February 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.
Original trailer (English subtitles)