A disaffected civil servant in late middle-age (Takashi Shimura) learns that he has terminal cancer and a few months left to live. After the initial shock and panic wears off, he sets out in a last-ditch attempt to find a proper purpose and meaning to his life.
Ikiru is Akira Kurosawa’s 13th feature film as director, and was his first film after his disastrous experience making The Idiot – which his studio sliced down in post-production and arguably badly weakened in the process. I have no idea if the bruising gauntlet had to run with The Idiot affected his ability to direct Ikiru, but it strikes me as a fairly messy and inconsistent film – and a fair drop down in quality from his widely regarded classics Rashomon and Stray Dog.
There are tonal problems with the film, which swings from bleak satire to uplifting melodrama and back to satire. It is very possible that these shifts in tone were wholly intentional; if so, they strike me as a failed experiment. By trying to make two sorts of film in one there is an extent to which Kurosawa fails to deliver with both. General critical opinion seems to disagree with me entirely, as Ikiru is regularly held up as the ‘lost classic’ of Kurosawa’s career. Personally – and in the end all film reviews are personal ones – Ikiru simply failed to fully impress me. Kurosawa had done better, and would go on to do much better, in the future.
It is worth noting the large number of things in Ikiru that do work. In the lead role of Watanabe, Takashi Shimura gives one of his best-ever performances. Watanabe is a tired and listless man, meek in temperament and terrified of conflict. When he learns he has terminal cancer he desperately wants to live his life more fully in the time that he has left, however he is too afraid and depressed to actually do it. He tries and fails to tell his insensitive, money-hungry son that he is ill. He tries to go out and spend all of his money on drink and women but fails at that too. It is only when he decides to force the construction of a public children’s park through city hall that he gets enough drive and dogged persistence to make a difference and make his life worth something. Even then he does it in the most awkward and stumbling manner possible.
The film also does an excellent job of satirising Japanese bureaucracy, which is slow, inefficient and Kafka-esque. An early sequence sees a group of women demanding a broken sewer be repaired get fobbed off from one department of the city council to another, until they finally wind up back where they started. This sequence is quickly followed by Watanabe’s diagnosis with stomach cancer. A fellow patient in the waiting room warns him that if he has cancer he will be told he has an ulcer so as not to panic him. This is exactly what happens, and Kurosawa captures Watanabe’s badly hidden reaction perfectly. When he stumbles out into the street, everything has an eerie quiet – until Watanabe accidentally walks in front of an approaching car, and suddenly the noise of the city roars back into the film.
From here, unfortunately, things all get rather simplistic and twee. There is blunt symbolism abound: Watanabe begins to shed his old fussy exterior, just as someone steals his hat – forcing him to buy a new hat for a new life. In a nightclub he sings a funeral dirge, stopping the dance floor in its tracks as he very obviously ends his own life. When he finally realises he will get a playground built with his remaining months, a party upstairs begins singing “Happy Birthday” to herald his inspiring rebirth.
Several of the characters in the middle section fail to convince, particularly Yunosuke Ito as an anonymous novelist who shows Watanabe the city night life. He is a crudely realised stereotype that weakens the movie with his presence.
Then, with 45 minutes left to go, the movie throws its audience a curveball by a narrator announcing that Watanabe is dead. We do not see him die. Instead we jump to his wake, where his son and daughter-in-law host his colleagues from City Hall as they eat and drink and pay their grudging respects. Debate begins to rage over whether Watanabe was responsible for the park getting built. It is clear from flashbacks that he was, but everybody else either wants to claim partial credit – such as the ambitious deputy mayor – or credit their superiors in the attempt to curry favour. By the end of the night the civil servants all devote themselves to doing more to get things done in government. At the first test, in one of the film’s final moments, they fail miserably.
It is this weird transition from satire to uplifting drama that I find Ikiru‘s most difficult aspect. The tonal shift, while bold, does not feel as if it works as well as it could. The film’s final message feels rather confused, both inspiring the viewer to make their lives worth living but seeming to also tell them not to bother. I came away from the film feeling rather dissatisfied, despite the numerous quality moments and performances scattered through the film.