The closing shot from Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru is one of the most apt and condensed shots in the last 60 years of cinema. The slow fade out from power lines over a gorgeous sunset encapsulates all the film’s human and inhuman metaphors. Though much of the 1952 chef-d’oeuvre is a sentimental journey following the last days of an old, cancer-ridden bureaucrat, Ikiru also functions as a critique of post-war Japan, and the dangers of westernizing at the expense of Japanese livelihood.
The film’s title, which translates into “To live”, suggests both interpretations – life for our protagonist, and life for Japan. And though the last section of the film is highly weighted on the life of one man, the final, perfect sunset subdivided by dark horizontal lines filled with electricity, reminds us of the influence of modernization and the conundrums it poses. Without a strong sense of who you are, it’s easy for modernity to chew you up and spit you out.
Kurosawa, fresh off his international sensation Rashomon, chose to leave feudal Japan for a Ozu-like depiction of the post-war era and study its effect on the aging generation as it makes room for the next.
For Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), he was spit out by bureaucracy. A public affairs Section Chief, Watanabe spent 30 years stamping papers and avoiding responsibility that could just as easily be someone else’s.
It was a good enough life, as he’d convinced himself all that sacrifice was for his son, but when he’s diagnosed with stomach cancer, and given six months to live, the empty feelings about his existence bubble to the surface. He’s not afraid of death, just his lack of life. “I just can’t die – I don’t know what I’ve been living for all these years,” he regales to a stranger in a bar.
He disappears from a job he’d never been absent from, disappears from his son and daughter-in-law who live with him, and attempts to find some meaningful acceptance with what he’s given. He withdraws a large portion of his savings, something he’s never done before, and sets out to find himself, and to find life.
Many people call Ikiru “the Japanese It’s a Wonderful Life”, and the comparison does bear some similarities. Both films are humanistic tales about days gone by, both use songs as a nostalgic cue (“Gondola no Uta” and “Buffalo Girls”) and both use snow as a metaphor for rebirth. But although that tagline is catchy, the comparison ends shortly after.
The films’ divergence starts with the opening shot. A snowy, sign reading “Welcome to Bedford Falls” is a decidedly different tone than an X-ray of stomach cancer. Where Frank Capra’s classic uses galaxies that blink to give expository dialogue, Ikiru’s daring narrative structure (penned by Kurosawa along with his frequent collaborators, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni) kills off the protagonist with over 30 minutes left in the film.
Photo courtesy of Criterion Collection
While George Bailey gets to tell everyone how much he loves them after his journey, Watanabe dies without ever alerting his son to his terminal illness. And unlike the young Bailey, there are no second chances for Watanabe; he can only hope to reconcile 30 years lost to the bureaucratic machine in a few short months.
Of course Watanabe succeeds; it would doubtful draw comparisons to any Capra film if it didn’t. Watanabe decides to create action in the office instead of avoiding it, and heads a public request to create a park, openly defying just about every superior in the process, including the Yakuza. After five months of battling, he dies at his most fulfilled state.
However, in an interesting narrative twist, we don’t watch any of these actions occur. They are told only bit by bit by people piecing together Watanabe’s motivations post-mortem. This technique takes us out of the life of a man and into the lives of everyone around him, showing us just how he is remembered – for better and worse. As his co-workers drunkenly discuss Watanabe and how their desk jobs fail to affect change, it’s hard not to think about every wasted moment in our own lives. And how simple it is to reverse our paths.
But Kurosawa isn’t just critiquing modernity and the governmental systems; the presence of power lines isn’t always bad. If Watanabe hadn’t spent those 30 years building his clout and learning how the machine worked, it’s unlikely he would’ve been able to build his park. The ability to get his project pushed through was within his power. And if it weren’t for the governmental systems in place, change from someone like Watanabe would be nearly impossible.
This conflicting statement is more subtle than the Capra film allows. George Bailey’s villain, Mr. Potter, is a miserable old crank, and we are safe in assuming that everything he does is misguided. There are no such villains in Watanabe’s world, just people without his death sentence.
The story is deeply affecting and life-affirming, but the plot is only a small part of what makes Ikiru so masterful. With Kurosawa, his mise-en-scène is key to his brilliance. The set design is gorgeous; the worn-torn government building is perfect in its dilapidation and disrepair. The Second World War ended just a few short years ago – more perils of modernization.
The visual metaphors and analogies are thorough and bright. At one point, a young girl who Watanabe fancies runs in the middle of the street in between two busses. Much later, at the construction yard for his park, Watanabe finds himself in a similar situation and nearly kills himself.
Even though he’s finally completing his vision, he is still not comfortable with the rush of modernity. And each frame is meticulously constructed and blocked so every actor’s emotion is heightened. Yes, Shimura is incredible in his discomfort in the doctor’s waiting room, but how Kurosawa shifts him back and forth through the frame, ending in an unexpected close-up, compounds his forlorn and worrisome stares.
In the end, this understanding of visual storytelling is what separates Ikiru from It’s a Wonderful Life. Two shots from Ikiru come to my mind whenever I am doing something bureaucratic for too long: the slow pan following Watanabe as he swings in the snow, singing, “Life is brief/ Fall in love, maidens/ Before the raven tresses begin to fade/ Before the flame in your hearts/ Flicker and die/ For those to whom today/ Will never return,” and that final, deliberate, resolving, arc into the sky, with the ever-present power lines guiding our passage.