Ikiru Akira Kurosawa 1952
Photo: Courtesy of Toho Studios

‘Ikiru’ at 70: How Akira Kurosawa’s Collaborators Helped Him Write a Masterpiece

Akira Kurosawa’s collaborative writing process on Ikiru complicates the cliché of the film auteur whose artistic vision is solely their own.

Akira Kurosawa
9 October 1952

The thought of my eventual death pops up in mind occasionally. I feel that I’m not ready to die just yet, and I become very restless. There are many things I must accomplish before I die. I’ve only lived a short time. Such thoughts haunt me and make me anxious. The movie Ikiru is based on these feelings of mine.

– Akira Kurosawa

Akira Kurosawa wrote those words shortly before his 42nd birthday as he prepared to shoot the 1952 film that would become one of his most beloved works. Inspired by Tolstoy’s 1886 novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the Japanese director—who’d recently received his first flash of international acclaim with Rashomon (1951)—aimed to tell the story of a dying man who “realizes he hasn’t lived at all.” The result was a masterpiece of cinematic storytelling, equally disturbing and life-affirming. Seventy years after the film first appeared in theaters, Ikiru is still capable of provoking viewers with a question that we ignore at our peril: What does it mean to truly live? 

Behind the story Kurosawa tells in Ikiru is another one: the tale of its creation. How did the director turn a vague, troubled intimation of his death into a fully imagined and groundbreaking script? How did he go from being inspired by a classic Russian novella to making something entirely unique? The answer is nearly as fascinating as Ikiru itself, offering surprising insights into both Kurosawa’s methods and the collaborative craft of screenwriting. 

In the final months of 1951, the director summoned a young screenwriter named Shinobu Hashimoto to his home in Tokyo and gave him a small half-sheet of traditional straw paper with these words: “A man with only seventy-five days to live.” In Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I (published in English in 2010), Hashimoto recounts the conversation that follows, in which Kurosawa does most of the talking: 

“‘Got that? That’s the theme.’

I nodded. ‘Make sure not to deviate from that theme.’

I nodded, still silent.

‘He can be any profession.’

‘Any profession?’

‘Yes, he can be a minister of state, he can be a beggar, a gangster, a thief — anything is fine.'”

The character could not really be anything: they agree that the protagonist can’t be in the yakuza crime syndicate since Kurosawa has already done that with 1948’s Drunken Angel (Yoidore tenshi). “Anything else will do,” Kurosawa says. The director sends his co-writer away with a few more instructions and a straightforward task: “In any case, decide his profession. Then a simple story, simple is fine. No longer than two or three of these sheets.” 

Ikiru Akira Kurosawa 1952

As Hashimoto tells it in his lively, well-crafted memoir—essential reading for anyone interested in the art of screenwriting—he returns home and gets to work, searching for his protagonist’s profession by flipping through phone books, jotting down “doable professions” until he realizes that this is a “terribly inefficient way to work.” Eventually, he has a revelation: the main character’s life, before his dramatic final days, must be bland and robotic, “as undramatic as possible.” What kind of person, what kind of career, would fit such a description? After toying with a couple of other ideas, the answer comes to him: the man with 75 days to live is a civil servant, “nothing but a bureaucrat at a government office.” 

This was the birth of Kanji Watanabe (played by Takeshi Shimura), Ikiru‘s protagonist, though he didn’t have a name yet. Hashimoto produced a treatment (“under two pages of half-sheet paper,” he notes proudly) that outlined the bureaucrat’s story: his mummy-like existence, his stomach cancer diagnosis, his painful and futile initial reactions to his illness, and his ultimate effort to replace a sewage-filled swamp with a “modest little park”, a mission that brings meaning and purpose to his final days. 

Kurosawa quickly built on Hashimoto’s treatment, writing an unforgettable early scene—both comical and enraging—where a group of local women seeking help for the sewage problem is shuffled from one bureaucratic department to another. He also brought in a third collaborator: a veteran screenwriter named Hideo Oguni. As Stuart Galbraith IV notes in The Emperor and the Wolf (2002), Oguni and Kurosawa were neighbors (“Since he is a tall man, I’d see him over my hedges,” Oguni recalled), and the director would often ask Oguni, his elder by half a decade, for advice as he worked on scripts. As Kurosawa worked on this new project, though, he told Oguni that he no longer wanted his advice: he wanted him to help write the script.  

Hashimoto’s memoir vividly depicts Oguni’s contributions to the writing process. Soon after the older screenwriter arrives, he asks questions about the protagonist: “Hashimoto, where was this man born?” Is he married? Is he ambitious? When they run out of answers, Oguni clicks his dentures and suddenly details how their protagonist slurps udon noodles each day at lunch and how carefully he sets his work clothes out at night. After this demonstration, the character suddenly seems real to them.

After some prodding from Oguni, Kurosawa realizes they need another character who “stands out” among the faceless bureaucrats. He begins brainstorming aloud about a “young woman…who says what she wants to say, does as she pleases, and wants to quit this job because she’s tired of it.” This perfectly sums up Toyo Odagiri (played by Miki Odagiri), the film’s most important secondary character, who provides a lively and ultimately inspiring contrast to the “mummy” Watanabe. By the end of their first meeting with Oguni, they had enough material to begin work on the actual script. 

Hashimoto got to work on the first draft, while Kurosawa made a plan for the beginning of the new year: they would check into a ryokan in the mountain town of Hakone and stay there until they finished the final draft. Oguni had other commitments, though, and couldn’t join them until the evening of the fourth day. So the two men began without him, using Hashimoto’s draft as a foundation, amassing nearly 50 pages during the first few days. The working title reflects the straightforward chronological structure they’d chosen: The Life of Kanji Watanabe. 

Then Oguni arrived. He wasn’t pleased with Kurosawa’s decision to bring them to a mountain town in the middle of winter and immediately began complaining about the cold (“Why he brought me to such a place, I’ll never understand,” he’d later recall. “My gloves were frozen solid in the bathroom”). After taking a bath in the hot springs and pointing out that his towel had turned to ice on the way back, he was ready to read what they’d written. In Hashimoto’s recollection, Oguni smoked a cigarette as Kurosawa “wordlessly passed him what we had finished.” The encounter he describes next is unforgettable:

“Mr. Oguni stubbed out his cigarette, took a breath, and began reading, but when he was finished he tilted his head slightly. 

‘Kurosawa, this is a little off.’

Mr. Kurosawa raised his face, and I also looked directly over at Mr. Oguni.

‘This won’t do.’

‘What won’t do?!’

I looked at Mr. Kurosawa in shock. His face was stiff and livid with anger. 

‘Oguni! What won’t do?!’ His voice brimmed with a terrible ire bordering on the murderous.”

Oguni told them that the chronological structure wasn’t working. He proposed an alternative: Watanabe should die halfway through the film, not at the end. Flustered and angry, Kurosawa silently considered this and then shouted, “Fine, Oguni!” When Oguni returned the manuscript, Kurosawa began ripping it into pieces. As Hashimoto recalled to various interviewers over the years, Kurosawa kept yelling as he tore up their work, telling Oguni, “It’s your fault because you’re late!” 

Ikiru Akira Kurosawa 1952

The next morning, they started over. They worked for another month, following the same routine every day: wake up at half past seven, warm up in the hot-spring bath, have breakfast, and start writing by ten. They’d work for seven hours each day, with a brief lunch break for udon or soba noodles. “We worked around a large table in the center of the tatami room,” Hashimoto writes. He sat to Kurosawa’s left, while Oguni sat at a low desk nearby, his back to Kurosawa. “The manuscript circled counterclockwise,” Hashimoto continues, “me using my right hand to pass my work to Mr. Kurosawa. He would look it over and simply pass it back, or fix something, or redo it himself…and when a scene or two were done, he pushed it over to Mr. Oguni with his right hand.”

As Kurosawa and Hashimoto worked silently on the script, Oguni would read a “thick English book.” He never wrote a single word. But he was the final stop on their writing assembly line, a sort of quality control supervisor for each new scene:

Mr. Oguni would pick it up without a word and read. If he said, “Nice,” it traveled back clockwise with him pushing it back over the table with his left hand. Mr. Kurosawa would take it silently and clip together the thickening manuscript, the final draft going without incident. 

If he didn’t approve, though, the scene would be sent back for further tinkering, while Oguni read his English book. They worked this way each day until 5pm each day, including Sundays and holidays. Sometimes they progressed only five or six pages, while on other days “twenty or thirty pages flew by.” When the day’s work was done, they’d bathe and have dinner. Before their ten o’clock bedtime, Kurosawa and Oguni would have whiskey (quite a bit of whiskey, Hashimoto suggests), as the three men chatted “about everything but work.” “In such a manner,” Hashimto writes, “we passed the days as if punching a time clock.” 

By early February, they were working on Ikiru‘s famous last scene. In a flashback that would become the film’s most iconic image, Watanabe sits on the swings of the completed playground in the snow, happily singing an old song to himself in his final moments. This song would be crucial to the finished film, sung by Watanabe at two very different moments of his journey, but on the afternoon that they worked on the final scene, Kurosawa could only recall the first line: Life is short, love away, young maid… 

“’Hashimoto, how does the rest of the song go?’

‘How would I know? It must be a love song from before I was born.’”

They asked Oguni, who was reading his English book. He knew the song, but he couldn’t quite remember the lines. Finally, they got on the phone, called reception, and “asked for the oldest maid who worked at the inn to be sent up.” 

And so, as Hashimoto tells it, a diminutive woman arrives at the door, ready to help:

“’I’m the oldest, what can I do for you?’

I cut to the chase. ‘Do you know the song that goes, ‘Life is short…’?’

‘Oh, the Gondola song.’

‘Gondola, that’s what it’s called? Do you happen to remember the lyrics?’

‘Hmm, I wonder. Maybe the first verse, if I may sing it…'”

In a scene that could have been in the film itself, the woman sits down on her knees in the tatami room, places her fists on her lap, takes a deep breath, and begins to sing. Her voice is “fine and clear, the sentiment somehow heartfelt.” The three writers lean forward, holding their breath. “Life is short,” the woman sings. “Love away, young maid/ before the red of your lips fades/ before your hot blood cools/ As though there’s no tomorrow…” 

That day, they decided to end their work early. Soon afterward, they officially finished the script. On one of their final evenings at the inn, Kurosawa took the clip off the manuscript pages and replaced the title sheet with one he’s just written on. “Hashimoto,” he said, “I did this for the title. What do you think?” 

It said Ikiru—“To Live”.

The younger writer wasn’t sure. It “seemed a bit stylish,” and he was still partial to their original title. So they turned to their “command tower and navigator,” Mr. Oguni, who, of course, was reading his English book. They gave him the new title page. “Ah, Hashimoto,” he responded. “This one, this is good, better than The Life of Kanji Watanabe. The title of this script is Ikiru, okay, Ikiru.” 

Ikiru Akira Kurosawa 1952

What if Kurosawa had simply refused to listen? What if he refused to accept the criticism of the late-arriving Oguni? Kurosawa was the director, after all, and he wasn’t known for having a particularly gentle personality. (The “emperor” in Galbraith’s The Emperor and the Wolf refers to Kurosawa.) No writer in history has ever enjoyed being told that their work “won’t do”, and Kurosawa certainly had the power to dismiss Oguni’s opinions outright. Imagine, then, if he had angrily refused to budge on the structure of the early draft. Would The Life of Kanji Watanabe endure as Ikiru has? Would it be as beloved? Would it continue to challenge audiences in the same way? 

We’ll never know, of course. But one thing is clear: the decision to have their protagonist die halfway through the film was a stroke of narrative genius. Kurosawa must have recognized this, even as he tore the earlier draft to pieces. Hashimoto recognized it, too. In his memoir, he observes that the first version of their script “ran the risk of being a stinky series of inspirational vignettes.” In other words, The Life of Kanji Watanabe would have been a mostly straightforward tale of transformation and triumph in the face of death. Ikiru, however, offers a far richer and more ambiguous perspective on human beings and our capacity to change. 

When Watanabe dies at Ikiru‘s midway point, the rest of the film becomes a complex dual act of interpretation. The attendees of Watanabe’s wake attempt to interpret his final days, trying to make sense of the facts, while we’re able to interpret their self-serving misinterpretations and their hilarious drunken vows to live like Watanabe in the future. As a result, we get to witness a dying man transform himself and his community in his final days while also witnessing the false promises and ultimate inaction of that man’s peers. Which tells us more about human beings? The answer isn’t clear. That’s one reason that Ikiru remains so vital. 

“Where films are concerned,” Kurosawa noted in a 1972 interview included in Joan Mellen’s Voices from Japanese Cinema (1975), “if you set out to convey some special message or thesis you will become narrow and rigid. I think it is true for any other creative work as well.” By listening to Oguni’s suggestion, Kurosawa could tell a story that, like many artistic masterpieces—including the work of his Russian literary heroes Dostoevsky and Tolstoy—manages to offer two powerful and opposing messages in tension with each other. 

Oguni’s suggestion wasn’t the only stroke of narrative genius. Kurosawa’s younger collaborator had already provided one. In his memoir, Hashimoto moves quickly past his own decision, in the early treatment, to have the main character build a park in his final days, but this decision is the emotional heart of the film. After decades of bureaucratic rubber-stamping and “meaningless busyness”, Watanabe devotes every last bit of strength he has left to ensure that a playground is built where there once was only a field of sewage. Everything in Ikiru builds to this, and the playground is a perfect choice: a tangible legacy of joy. 

Watanabe realizes that he can still serve and connect with others, even in a job where he’d done so little over so many years: “Even there, there’s something I can do. I just have to find the will.” This epiphany becomes even more meaningful when we consider the historical moment. As Michael Lucken notes in Imitation and Creativity in the Japanese Arts (2016), Tokyo had 182 children’s playgrounds before the Second World War. After the American bombing of 1945, only 82 remained. Ikiru was both created and set during a period of painful recovery, less than a decade removed from the emotional and physical devastation of World War II and the atomic bombs. In this context, Watanabe’s project isn’t just an act of redemption and service; it’s an act of healing. This idea came from Hashimoto, working on the “simple” assignment Kurosawa gave him. 

Kurosawa relied on the same collaborative method—with his neighbor Oguni in tow—for the rest of his career. In the mid-’70s, he offered some advice to young people interested in filmmaking, including an observation that “in writing alone there is a danger that your interpretation of another human being will suffer from one-sidedness.” Instead, he suggests, “If you write with two other people about that human being, you get at least three different viewpoints on him, and you can discuss the points on which you disagree.” 

Kurosawa’s writing process on Ikiru corroborates this wisdom, complicating the cliché of the film auteur whose artistic vision is solely their own. The fruitful tension between Kurosawa and his collaborators created a multi-sided story that endures. Although the inspiration for Ikiru began in private, as the great director restlessly contemplated his death, it became a masterpiece of world cinema only because Kurosawa was willing to trust their instincts as much as his own. 

Ikiru Akira Kurosawa 1952