Like Citizen Kane, like Rules of the Game, Ikiru (in English, To Live) is a film you will find on almost everyone's 10 Best list. While I prize the first two films for their cinematic virtuosity, I prize this film for what I think of as its emotional virtuosity.
Yet if you say the plot simply in outline, as TV Guide would, it is awfully banal. A sad sack of a do-nothing civil servant. Kanji Watanabe (extraordinarily done by Takashi Shimura), learns he is going to die. He repents, reforms, cuts through all the red tape, and gets a children's park built. You could do some dreadful sentimental films on that idea, that facing death brings reform, and of course Hollywood has. But in this film I see an emotional virtuosity that goes far beyond sentimentality.
Not that there isn't cinematic virtuosity, too. After all, Kurosawa was a notorious perfectionist, controlling every aspect of his filmmaking. He gives us a brilliant montage sequence near the beginning when the city bureaucrats are giving the mothers who want the park the runaround. There is more intense montage in the “underworld” scenes of night life. Then, at Watanabe’s wake, the survivors piece his state of mind together in a series of rich memory flashbacks.
Let's get the film as a whole in mind. We begin abruptly with a startling X-ray of Watanabe's stomach cancer, followed by a picture of him in his office shuffling papers and protecting his job by assiduously doing nothing. A group of mothers comes to protest a cesspool in their neighborhood. The stagnant water is making their children sick. The city bureaucrats, however, quickly give them the brush-off, shuttling them from office to office (in Kurosawa's wonderful montage).
Watanabe has been having stomach trouble and goes to the hospital for diagnosis. There a hypochondriacal patient tells him that doctors give a deceptive spiel to victims of stomach cancer. Then Watanabe is crushed when an indifferent doctor follows that script to the letter. (Stephen Prince in his excellent commentary for the Criterion DVD notes that this was standard Japanese medical practice at the time. You don't tell cancer patients they have the disease; they will think of it as a death sentence, and they will only get sicker.)
Stricken by the realization that he will shortly die, Watanabe starts drinking. He meets a writer (Yuÿamnosuke Itoÿam) who identifies himself as Mephistopheles. This writer leads poor Watanabe on a drunken spree into a strange, new (to him) underworld of pachinko gambling, nightclubs, and prostitutes. (All good epic heroes have to take a trip to the underworld.) As the night spins on in another great montage sequence, Watanabe brings it to a standstill when he sings in a bar, “Life is brief. Fall in love, maidens, before your raven tresses begin to fade . . . ” and the revelers fall into a melancholy stillness. Finally, at the end of the evening, Watanabe vomits blood—he is still going to die.
Next, he takes up with Toyo (Miki Odagiri), an exuberant young girl who had been working in his suffocatingly bureaucratic office. She was wildly out of place, cheerily telling jokes against the bureaucrats. (To suggest her energy, Kurosawa had the actress, Miki Odagiri, move during close-ups, contrary to ordinary cinematic technique. Watch for it.) She wants now to quit, and she needs him to approve some forms. Watanabe's son and daughter-in-law, seeing them together, assume they are seeing something that is not uncommon in Japan, an old man taking a young mistress. Poor Watanabe, though, only wants somehow to draw vicariously on her youthful energy.
But when he tells her he is dying, she gets scared and flees. He has had a revelation, though. He needs to do something, not in an underworld of vices, not vicariously through vital Toyo, but in the place in the world he has chosen for his whole life, his office. “I have to find the will!” Schoolgirls at a party in the background sing a highly symbolic “Happy Birthday.”
Kurosawa uses as a (perhaps too obvious) symbol of Watanabe's change of life, his hat. His old hat he had anxiously crushed in the doctor's waiting room. It gets stolen by a prostitute in the “underworld.” His new “younger” hat represents his change. It becomes a portentous symbol, often spoken of, and one of the last things we see in the film.
Changed, he goes back to that obstructive office and kick-starts his pettifogging staff into actually doing something about that cesspool. At this point, the film jumps past Watanabe's death to his wake. A wake is customary in Japan and like an Irish wake: lots of drinking combined with reminiscences of the deceased. Here, we get an ugly mixture of honest, if stupid, misunderstanding and hypocritical self-serving. Watanabe's co-workers, through a series of memory flashbacks, stumble through their reminiscences as they try to understand Watanabe's motives and deeds toward the end. (This is very like Rashomon, another great Kurosawa film in which different characters report a single event in different self-serving ways.) The last memory is that of the policeman who found Watanabe's body, and that flashback gives us the famously moving shot of Watanabe rocking slowly back and forth in a child's swing as snow softly falls. He is singing the song he was moved to sing in the underworld: “Life is brief. Fall in love, maidens . . . ” Watanabe on the swing is, of course, the signature shot of the film (the one that the posters and the DVD cover and essayists like me use). But, for all its poignancy, this is not the last shot. The last shot will tie all this together.
You notice right off the daring way Kurosawa has cut his picture in two (a brilliant idea of the screenwriter, Hideo Oguni, eagerly adopted by Kurosawa). Knowing that Watanabe is going to die flummoxes every character who hears of it, even, in a way Kurosawa himself because he makes Watanabe's death radically divide the picture into a life and an afterlife. But the afterlife is not time in heaven—Japan is not a Christian country. This new, second life consists of the memories of one's fellow human beings. In the first part, we saw this kind of afterlife in Watanabe's memory of his wife. In the second part, we see it in his co-workers’ memories of his efforts; the mothers' memory of him; the policeman's, and so on.
Photographs frame this movie, the X-ray at the beginning, the photograph of Kurosawa's dead wife marking the earliest moment, and the photograph of Watanabe's face that looms over the wake. To me, they suggest stillness, lack of motion, like the stagnant water in the cesspool. (Kurosawa used cesspools in other films to suggest corruption, Drunken Angel  and Scandal .) But they also remind me that Kurosawa himself photographs in order to tell this story. As in Rashomon Kurosawa makes sure we realize he is one of the narrators.
Contrasted to the still photographs, there are all those scenes in the underworld with the camera jumping and swinging here and there, Kurosawa shooting at odd angles or into mirrors. More movement comes from flashbacks, as Watanabe prays before his household shrine or as his workers reminisce at the wake. Then there is the rapidly moving traffic. Three times people are almost hit by trucks or buses or an earthmover.
Kurosawa treats one kind of movement as special, rising and falling, going upstairs (associated with youth and drive) or going downstairs (depression, failure, stagnation, death). At key points, Kurosawa pans upward into clouds or a sunset. Kurosawa uses this Ascension motif most brilliantly after the wake. Kimura (Shinichi Himori) is the one civil servant at the wake who is inspired by Watanabe’s example. The next morning, at the office, he breaks out of the chain of command to urge his colleagues to do something. A stern look from the new section chief shuts him up, and Kimura sinks down, submerged behind piles of papers.
In general, movement contrasts to the stagnation in the bureaucratic offices and the drunken talk, talk, talk at the wake. Talk becomes a way of not moving: the bureaucrats' stalling, the doctor's lie, Watanabe's inability to talk about his illness. Finally, at the end, there is Watanabe gently rocking in a child's swing and not talking but singing. He has transcended the deadliness of the others.
By playing off stillness against movement, I think Kurosawa is pointing to the very nature of motion pictures. He repeatedly calls attention to the fact we are watching a movie by odd camera angles, tricks with the sound track, rapid cutting or wipes (a favorite transition with Kurosawa). It as if he is saying, you see? this movie I am making, it moves, it takes part in the rush of life, ever driving on. Like Watanabe after he gets “will,” I the moviemaker am doing something.
As part of that life-world of movement and drive and appetite, we often see the characters eating and drinking (poor, sick Watanabe can hardly do so). Toyo, in particular, gobbles down food when she is with Watanabe, while he sadly watches. Even the bureaucrats eat, but in their office. And, of course, there is eating and drinking at the wake. Life is appetite, drive. As Kurosawa and the writer drink, the writer tells him, “It's our human duty to enjoy life.” “We've got to be greedy about living,” and that could be the motto of this picture.
In this light, Watanabe's cancer of the stomach means something special. The stomach occupies a special place in Japanese culture. We Westerners use “heart” to describe our emotions as in the song: “You gotta have heart” or “my heart is broken” or “my heart isn't in it.” The Japanese use stomach or hara for the seat of feelings, courage, love, or state of mind. Kurosawa's cancer of the hara suggests a corruption of his whole being.
Among the appetites, of course, is sex, the preoccupation of Watanabe's brother, who reads Watanabe's behavior always in terms of sex. Sex leads to other themes that Kurosawa develops; men and women; the generations; children.
Men here are an unsavory lot, starting with Watanabe's old self. There is the lying doctor, the self-serving oily deputy mayor, Watanabe's cowardly second-in-command and successor, or a tough-guy bunch of gangsters who want to put a restaurant in place of the playground. Watanabe's son is cold or greedy where his father is concerned. Above all, there are the selfish, uncaring, and incompetent bureaucrats. All these men in their several ways prove inadequate. By contrast, the women in the film are forceful and dynamic, like Toyo. Watanabe's daughter-in-law orders his son around. The mothers get their park.
Men and women make the generations. But here, the generations are estranged from one another, un-understanding. Watanabe's greedy son and daughter-in-law want to get away from the old man, grabbing his pension money if they can. They can only understand his relationship with Toyo as sexual. While he is praying and thinking back over his life at the family shrine, they are upstairs having sex. Neither Toyo nor the doctor nor the bureaucrats, all younger than Watanabe can sympathize with him.
Time in one scene terrifies. Watanabe, having learned of his cancer, prepares to go to bed by winding his watch and his clock. As he realizes what time now means to him, he runs like a scared child and hides his head under the covers.
But whatever the film says about men and women and parents and children, the children are at the heart of it (or should I say the hara of it?). Why do we need to get rid of the cesspool? Children. Why do we need a park? Children. Who is hurt by the indifference of the bureaucrats or the pleasure-seekers in the underworld or the consumerism of the son and daughter-in-law? Children.
Child-like Toyo symbolizes youth and energy and naivete (although she is ground down by the real world of grown-ups into factory work). Even so, making toy bunnies, it's fun. She says she feels as though she is “playing with every baby in Japan.” Children are getting a rash from the stagnant water. Children, we are told, “need protection.” Watanabe's severest failure was not staying with his son when the boy was frightened before his upcoming appendectomy, and going to his office instead. (The episode gives us one of the most striking of Kurosawa's up-down shots.) Watanabe's new resolution is symbolized by schoolgirls celebrating a birthday. The birthday girl comes up the stairs as Watanabe goes down them. And when I see Watanabe on the swing at the end, I cannot help remembering Jesus’ injunction: “Except ye become . . . as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven.”
I think that Kurosawa might well have had that biblical reference to children in mind when he made this film, but he had other literary sources. I've mentioned Dickens' and Kafka's portrayals of just this kind of bureaucrat. He was fond of the great Russian novelists, and here he may also have had in mind Tolstoy's great short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, about another dying man who reviews his life and then dies. (It's a great story, and if you haven't read it, you owe it to yourself.) The writer in this film identifies himself as Mephistopheles, complete with black dog, as in Goethe, which makes Watanabe a kind of Faust. And Watanabe in the swing, in a sense, is that eternal moment to which Faust clung.
But Watanabe softly singing in the snow on the swing is not the final shot (as a lesser artist might have made it). The final shot pulls together many, perhaps all of these threads I've been describing. It has an up and a down. We look down on the park where Watanabe died and where children now play. We look up at a bridge (transition), and we see the one loyal civil servant, Kimura. He is wearing his hat. Over his head are the power lines, signifying traffic and movement. Then we hear a mother calling her children in for—what else?—supper—food. At first Kimura stands still, but then he begins to walk sadly out of the frame. The end, leaving us with the question, What now? Will he be able to accomplish something as Watanabe did?
This is a very psychological film, although I doubt that Kurosawa had these ideas in mind. When he shows us Watanabe sitting at his desk surrounded on every side by accumulated papers (three pickup trucks' worth!) and repetitively, meaninglessly stamping more paper. Watanabe pictures exactly what Freud called an obsessional or “anal” character. You could not ask for a more graphic depiction of the type than that man in that office: retaining papers, withholding from others, stingy with money, obstinate and immovable and niggardly, blocked in every way. And then, once he knows he will die and it will all be taken away from him, he flips. He becomes the opposite, neglecting his duty, throwing his money around, and impulsively rushing here and there.
Kurosawa could not know this, but recently some neuropsychologists have found a basic SEEKING (dopaminergic) system in our brains, the core of all our other impulses to action and the emotions that accompany them. We go through life seeking food, sex, knowledge, pleasure—and movies. Kurosawa shows us just such a SEEKING in his treatment of eating and drinking, sex, motion, all manifestations of that life force, that basic human drive (or, as Freud might have called it, libido or the life instinct). “We've got to be greedy about living.” And, as opposed to those actions, we have Watanabe's blockage before his impending death teaches him to live.
When Watanabe has his revelation, when he announces, “I just have to find the will,” and when he acts on that new strength, I think he has recovered for himself bushido, the code of the samurai, stressing knightly courage and values like valor, loyalty, a sense of purpose, and self-sacrifice. All of these Watanabe demonstrates in his own civil service way, using his very submissiveness (like a judo master) to overcome the inertia of the city bureaucrats, even the haughty deputy mayor. (His second-in-command is terrified at Watanabe's bravery.) Bushido even enables Watanabe to face down the gangsters by sheer force of will.
The fact that a lowly bureaucrat can find bushido links this film to Kurosawa's more popular samurai movies. I sense that Kurosawa valued sheer willpower in itself. He was also providing encouragement to the defeated Japanese. The American occupiers were trying to play down bushido as militaristic. To the ordinary Japanese, though, bushido meant an important national tradition and value that had to be recovered from the shame of the World War II defeat—as Watanabe does.
Bushido or not, Watanabe's new drive and life force has its negative side, represented by the greed of the son and daughter-in-law, the danger of the traffic, or the rudeness of the mothers. And this darker side explains my swirl of conflicting emotions. Above and beyond the film's praise of a forceful purpose, I think Kurosawa let us sense also that force and drive can be very nasty. Drive needs to be guided by overriding moral values: honesty, sympathy for one's fellow humans. That is probably the idea that informs and unifies this film (at least for me): a life force tempered by human warmth—particularly toward children, the continuation of that life force. Watanabe's last song is about finding a passion. “Fall in love, maidens.”
When I sense the many threads in this film coming together to a stunning ending, I feel Kurosawa has swept me into a swirl of emotion. That is what I mean when I speak of his “emotional virtuosity.” I cannot see this movie without thinking of my own death, which cannot be many years away. Nor can I help looking back and wondering if I am living my life as the hero of this film lives at the beginning or as he lives at the end. Am I, as we say, “making a difference”? I am writing this essay. Is that “making a difference”? I would like it, if when you go back to the movie with some of these ideas in mind, scenes and moments light up for you. Is that “making a difference”? Who is to say? Only you, I think.