Photo Courtesy of Criterion Collection

The story is deeply affecting and life-affirming, but the plot is only a small part of what makes Ikiru so masterful.

Ikiru: Essential Art House

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Takashi Shimura, Shinichi Himori, Haruo Tanaka, Minour Chiaki, Miki Odagiri, Bokuzen Hidari
Distributor: Criterion
MPAA rating: Unrated
First date: 1952
US DVD Release Date: 2009-02-10

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.







'Bigger Than History: Why Archaeology Matters'

On everything from climate change to gender identity, archaeologists offer vital insight into contemporary issues.


DYLYN Dares to "Find Myself" by Facing Fears and Life's Dark Forces (premiere + interview)

Shifting gears from aspiring electropop princess to rock 'n' rule dream queen, Toronto's DYLYN is re-examining her life while searching for truth with a new song and a very scary-good music video.


'Avengers: Endgame' Culminates 2010's Pop Culture Phenomenon

Avengers: Endgame features all the expected trappings of a superhero blockbuster alongside surprisingly rich character resolutions to become the most crowd-pleasing finalés to a long-running pop culture series ever made.


Max Richter's 'VOICES' Is an Awe-Inspiring and Heartfelt Soundscape

Choral singing, piano, synths, and an "upside-down" orchestra complement crowd-sourced voices from across the globe on Max Richter's VOICES. It rewards deep listening, and acts as a global rebuke against bigotry, extremism and authoritarianism.


JOBS Make Bizarre and Exhilarating Noise with 'endless birthdays'

Brooklyn experimental quartet JOBS don't have a conventional musical bone in their body, resulting in a thrilling, typically off-kilter new album, endless birthdays.


​Nnamdï' Creates a Lively Home for Himself in His Mind on 'BRAT'

Nnamdï's BRAT is a labyrinth detailing the insular journey of a young, eclectic DIY artist who takes on the weighty responsibility of reaching a point where he can do what he loves for a living.


Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few Play It Cool​

Austin's Monte Warden and the Dangerous Few perform sophisticatedly unsophisticated jazz/Americana that's perfect for these times


Eleanor Underhill Takes Us to the 'Land of the Living' (album stream)

Eleanor Underhill's Land of the Living is a diverse album drawing on folk, pop, R&B, and Americana. It's an emotionally powerful collection that inspires repeated listens.


How Hawkwind's First Voyage Helped Spearhead Space Rock 50 Years Ago

Hawkwind's 1970 debut opened the door to rock's collective sonic possibilities, something that connected them tenuously to punk, dance, metal, and noise.


Graphic Novel 'Cuisine Chinoise' Is a Feast for the Eyes and the Mind

Lush art and dark, cryptic fables permeate Zao Dao's stunning graphic novel, Cuisine Chinoise.


Alanis Morissette's 'Such Pretty Forks in the Road' Is a Quest for Validation

Alanis Morissette's Such Pretty Forks in the Road is an exposition of dolorous truths, revelatory in its unmasking of imperfection.


Hip-Hop's Raashan Ahmad Talks About His Place in 'The Sun'

On his latest work,The Sun, rapper Raashan Ahmad brings his irrepressible charisma to this set of Afrobeat-influenced hip-hop.


Between the Buried and Me's Baby Pictures Star in 'The Silent Circus'

The Silent Circus shows Between the Buried and Me developing towards the progressive metal titans they would eventually become.


The Chad Taylor Trio Get Funky and Fiery on 'The Daily Biological'

A nimble jazz power trio of drums, tenor sax, and piano, the Chad Taylor Trio is free and fun, funky and fiery on The Daily Biological.


Vistas' 'Everything Changes in the End' Is Catchy and Fun Guitar Rock

Vistas' debut, Everything Changes in the End, features bright rock music that pulls influences from power-pop and indie rock.


In Amy Seimetz's 'She Dies Tomorrow', Death Is Neither Delusion Nor Denial

Amy Seimetz's She Dies Tomorrow makes one wonder, is it possible for cinema to authentically convey a dream, or like death, is it something beyond our control?


Maestro Gamin and Aeks' Latest EP Delivers LA Hip-Hop Cool (premiere + interview)

MaestroAeks' Sapodigo is a collection of blunted hip-hop tunes, sometimes nudging a fulsome boom-bap and other times trading on laid-back, mellow grooves.


Soul Blues' Sugaray Rayford Delivers a "Homemade Disaster" (premiere + Q&A)

What was going to be a year of touring and building Sugaray Rayford's fanbase has turned into a year of staying home and reaching out to fans from his Arizona home.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.