Directed by Kurosawa Akira
With Shimura Takeshi (Watanabe Kanji), Kaneko Nobuo (Watanabe Tetsuo), Itô Yûnosuke (the writer), Odagari Miki (Toyo)
The narrative is divided in three parts. The first wryly introduces the main character, Watanabe Kanji, as a narrator tells the audience he isn’t really worthy of his hero status as his pen-pusher’s career has been useless and his inner life dull; his work environment is also presented. Meanwhile a group of women try to get their demand satisfied: they want to turn a cesspit into a playground; they go through the bureaucratic rigmarole, including a visit at Watanabe’s office, but miserably fail. Then Watanabe finds out that he has a cancer and that his son and daughter-in-law are mainly concerned with his money and their comfort. A frenetic editing mixes all these elements into an amazingly fluid narration, which candidly illustrates the absurdity of a bureaucratic system (in this case, Tôkyô’s city hall) and poignantly shows how one man’s certainties can be upturned in a matter of days and hours.
The next section chronicles how Watanabe reacts. First he is understandably despondent and neglects his job. Then his mind changes as he follows the patron of a small bar, a poor writer, who pushes him to start living as he has never done before. This is the start of a long night for the two lost souls who become exuberant revelers stumbling from one bar into another with tours in pachinko parlors and a red light street. Another opportunity to free his mind comes next with Toyo, a female subordinate at his office, who wants him to help her to resign, since she can’t stand anymore the job. This time, it is the start of a long day at a fair and a string of evening meetings, which eventually creates misunderstandings. Toyo fears she will be an old man’s love but in fact Watanabe is desperate for a reason to live and a form of energy. The whole section has a quieter pace as it paints the deep sadness of Watanabe as he comes to terms with the fact he was passed over in life’s game.
An illumination (sparked by a soft toy) launches the final part. The narration moves back to a hectic pace as a brilliant montage tells the final months of Watanabe. It is built around the wake preceding Watanabe’s funeral and it lets the words of various attendants unveil what Watanabe did and how he kept changing in the way. The tension between decision-makers, employees and the public opinion bursts unto the screen. Watanabe’s will to make something useful for the citizens his office at first rebuffed is a testimony to a larger sense of public service that is lacking; it is also a reminder of the need to fulfill one’s life with a worthy purpose.
The film is carried on the shoulders of transformed actor Shimura Takeshi (a regular at Kurosawa’s cinema and an all-time favorite of the Japanese audience). Bent, frail, hoary, hoarse, he plods his way in corridors and streets, at loss with himself and the events. Close-ups in bright light and taken at a slight low angle regularly focus our attention to his pallid face and his incredible, and incredibly sad, gaze. As his predicament becomes obvious in the first part and then all over the second part he cuts a ghostly figure as he struggles to face his fate and find a dignified way to end his life. What would you do if you knew that you had six months left ask rhetorically the doctor to his assistants after he talked, and lied, to Watanabe; a good point, indeed, and the answer Watanabe finds is the polar opposite of any cynicism. In the final part, Watanabe appears, in the memories of the funeral’s attendants, somehow reconciled with his condition and determined to pull it off – to the embarrassment of many.
Compositions in “Ikiru – Living” are beautiful. Motions of bodies and lights starkly show the distress Watanabe suffers, as he is gripped by fear at the hospital, cowering as he listens to the blunt opinion of a fellow patient, or as disgust wreaks him in the small bar, putting him in a corner he tentatively try to get out of with the writer’s help. Visions of groups are even more powerful and telling: the office employees have their space inevitably shaped by piles of files, framing their will and creating a shelter where they gossip or snack; the patrons of a jazz joint where the writer and Watanabe land are carried away, like the camera, by the rhythm of the piano man until Watanabe starts singing an old love song and everyone stands still; and there is the long sequence at Watanabe’s wake. The camera effortlessly meanders among the people, focusing one face at a time and then showing the whole setting; the switch from close-ups to long shots lasts as long as it takes for the participants to get as drunk as a fish and for the memories to give the fullest and most honest account of Watanabe’s final success. The polyphony ends with their promise to follow his example. The last scene shows our pen-pushers will not be a cut above; they will remain unable to challenge routine and decision-makers. However, the audience leaves the theater with the unforgettable image of Watanabe singing his old love song on a swing, in the playground he helped to build, and where cold will kill him. This is the picture of a fellow aware that his own will did achieve something, after all.