If you knew you had only six months left to live, how would it change the way you viewed the life you had lived thus far, and what would you do with your remaining time? These are the questions examined by Kurosawa’s 1952 film, Ikiru, one of the filmmaker’s most introspective works. When Kenji Watanabe, an everyman mid-level government bureaucrat played masterfully by Takashi Shimura, accidentally learns he is dying of cancer (it is important to point out that at this time in Japan, terminal patients were not informed of their condition, to avoid demoralizing them, thus inhibiting their ability to endure as long as possible), he must reexamine his life and try to find a way to bring meaning to his remaining days. Watanabe, a lonely widower, lives with his son and daughter in law, with whom his relationship is strained at best. His job is filled with meaningless red tape. He had no friends. It is a life no one would envy. And yet when he learns it is near an end, he finds renewed determination to bring meaning to it.
The tragedy of Watanabe’s life is that it was not always that way. Through flashbacks, his earlier life is revealed to have had love and passion. The loss of this is demonstrated most by an all but forgotten report in his desk, a lengthy report written on his own initiative on improving office efficiency. Years later, he uses its pages only for cleaning ink off of his official seal. His passion burned out, his life devoid of human connection, he has become a mummy, the nickname used for him by his one of his underlings. This is the canvas Kurosawa sets out to explore in Ikiru, whose title means “To Live.”
Initially, Watanabe sets out to find solace in alcohol, womanizing, and nightlife, all previously unknown to him, and all ultimately meaningless. Then he befriends a young woman who has just quit his department. He finds her youth and passion exciting, but in one of the film’s highpoints, passionately asks her what her secret, she replies that all she does in her new job is make little mechanical bunnies, but that “Making them, I feel like I’m playing with every baby in Japan. Why don’t you try making something too?” He despairs at her answer, since he is stuck at his office. But after several seconds of silence, a look of hope passes over his face and he tells her, “It is not too late” and rushes out of the coffee house where they are talking, muttering “There is something I can do…” over and over while a group of kids sing Happy Birthday. And in a real sense, it is his birthday.
What he can do is take on a request made early in the film by a group of housewives, who had been seen early in the being given the bureaucratic runaround about a filthy cesspool on an abandoned lot in their neighborhood. Watanabe decides to spend the rest of his life fixing their problem. The first half of the film ends with a reborn Watanabe striding out from his office, filled with passion once more.
At this point, the film suddenly jumps to his funeral. His family and coworkers are left with a mystery: Why did Watanabe change so much in those last few months? Through their discussion and recollections, they piece together the events of the end of Watanabe’s life and conclude he had learned of his impending death somehow. This understanding hits the mourners hard, filling some with remorse and regret, while filling others with renewed determination not to allow their own lives to become empty and meaningless.
Ultimately, Watanabe himself finds peace, as demonstrated by the haunting scene where he sits on a swing in the park he forced the city to build against its will on the former cesspool, singing a love song filled with regrets for list youth as the snow falls all around him. He is truly happy and truly at peace. He had found his happy ending.
Unfortunately, the lessons learned at his funeral are short lived, as the most passionate one from Watanabe’s department finds his passion being crushed by the new section chief almost immediately. This is Kurosawa’s final warning to the audience that they must never allow their own passions to be quashed.