Today would’ve been legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s 100th birthday, were he still with us. I’m the first to admit that I’m not the biggest Kurosawa fan, and this day probably would’ve passed by me unnoticed had it not been for the writers at Row Three putting together a site-wide review retrospective devoted to Kurosawa films, which has taken up most of the posts over the past week. Reading those reviews has gotten me all enthused to revisit Kurosawa more myself, and the film I reviewed for the series definitely proved to me that I had been missing something the first time around and it’s now time to move more in-depth into both Kurosawa and Japanese film in general.
Check out all the Kurosawa posts from all the writers here; and here’s an excerpt of my review of Ikiru:
Having only seen three Kurosawa films prior to this tribute series (and not “getting” those as much as I would have liked), I embarked on my part of the series with as much a goal of discovery as of celebration. Because the films I’d already seen were all samurai films, I opted to watch and review one of Kurosawa’s contemporary-set films. Review contains some spoilers, but it’s a film that depends far more on mood and character than plot twists, so I don’t think it’ll matter too much.
“The best way to protect your place in the world is to do nothing at all. Is that all life is really about?”
The word “ikiru” translates as “to live,” and Ikiru examines what it means to really live, while also acknowledging the difficulty of actually making any difference with your life. Watanabe-san is a civil servant, the section chief for a bureaucratic city government who spends his days in a mountain of paperwork, always busy without ever accomplishing anything. The narration suggests that he’s been dead for nearly 20 years, because he just floats along without really living – he has no passion or ambition; he’s “worn down by the minutia of the bureaucratic machine.” However, when Watanabe finds out that he’s dying from stomach cancer, he has an existential crisis, experiencing flashbacks of his wasted life and punishing himself with sake (poisonous to him with his medical condition).
Two chance meetings offer him differing possibilities for how to really live in the time he’s got left. A man in a bar takes him out gambling, drinking, and into the red light district. The next day, he meets a young clerk from his office who is resigning her job because it’s so soul-deadening; her joy in life is infectious, and he quickly covets spending time with her – a desire that quickly spreads lascivious rumors though his intentions seem quite benign. When she tells him of the happiness she finds in her new job, he decides to throw himself into his work and really take responsibility for it – to do one really good thing with the position he’s got before he runs out of time.