A Study of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, Part 1

What it Means to Live

by Aryeh Kaufman Volume 13, Issue 4 / April 2009 29 minutes (7017 words)

1. Introduction to Ikiru

Ikiru, meaning “to live” or “living,” was directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1952 under Toho Productions. Kurosawa, with the help of Hashimoto and Oguni, wrote the screenplay for the black and white film at age 42. The film, widely recognized as one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces, must be understood within its historical and cultural contexts. Ikiru emerged during Japan’s postwar reconstruction, as the country sought to adapt to its newly inherited capitalism and democracy. Calling for forms of cultural upheaval and self-scrutiny, the film may be viewed as political cinema. Specifically, Ikiru affirms the pride and power of the individual. It promotes breaking traditional ties to larger social groups, such as family and company, for the sake of personal achievement.

Kurosawa’s first postwar film, No Regrets for our Youth (1946), similarly dealt with the national process of recovery and cultural transformation. In that film, Yukie, the daughter of a professor, is groomed for marriage, studying the arts of piano and flower arrangement. Such a passive existence fails to satisfy her, however, and she seeks alternative outlets for her passions that take her beyond the bounds of class and gender associations. [1] Kurosawa’s work, therefore, seeks to prepare audiences for the spiritual process of Japan’s recovery on the individual level by promoting a more Westernized view of the self.

In general, Kurosawa draws upon numerous sources and texts to inform his films. Ikiru is no exception, combining Western elements from Dostoevsky’s works and Goethe’s Faust with Eastern visions of Zen and the samurai code of Bushido. In terms of Ikiru??’s specific origins, Kurosawa explains, “Sometimes I think of my death. I think of ceasing to be…and it is from these thoughts that ??Ikiru came.” [2] Furthermore, Fumio Hayasaka, musical composer for several Kurosawa films and the director’s close friend, was consistently ill with tuberculosis, then considered terminal, at the time of ??Ikiru??’s production. In a letter to Kurosawa, Hayasaka openly declared that “for a man, dying for one’s job is one way of showing one’s spirit.” [3] Such real life inspiration may have shaped ??Ikiru??’s development.

Ikiru is the story of Kanji Watanabe, who, when facing death, finally realizes that he has led a meaningless life—that he has not lived at all. In fact, Watanabe has crafted his life to avoid passion and action. The film often depicts Watanabe, played by Takashi Shimura, in an office environment that emphasizes his physical and emotional absence. Watanabe’s death sentence, presented through an advanced stomach cancer, shocks the protagonist and leads to his despair. After disavowing his prior existence and accepting a search for means to live to the fullest, Watanabe experiments with various approaches to living, each with different moral implications. He explores the immediate fulfillment of the senses in a wild scene of night revelry. He attempts to rely on family bonds and relationships for the support and closeness he needs. And he is driven to live through a youthful coworker who appears to know the secret to his desperate search for aliveness. Finally, in a moment of enlightenment, Watanabe realizes he may in fact bring meaning to his life. By championing a proposal to build a children’s playground in a slum, and by dedicating his remaining days to its fulfillment, Watanabe finds peace and tranquility. The tragedy has turned into an uplifting model of affirmation.

The film presents a unique binary structure that utilizes multiple character perspectives and non-linear time. The first division, covering two-thirds of the film, begins with an omniscient narrator’s presentation of an X-ray of Watanabe’s stomach and the knowledge that he has terminal cancer. This part demonstrates Watanabe’s progress from the discovery of his cancer to the realization that he can proactively impart meaning to his life. The second division of Ikiru also begins with the narrator’s instruction, though this time he informs the audience that Watanabe has passed away. The remainder of this part presents the main character’s wake ceremony at which he is eulogized and remembered, often hypocritically. This second division is characterized by a unity of time and space, unlike the freer narrative structure of the first. At the wake, flashbacks serve to fill in gaps and are presented as literal reconstructions of events. Ironically, viewers are never presented with specific flashbacks in which Watanabe successfully achieves either approval or acceptance of the playground proposal—a key moment for viewers. The mourners fail to present such moments. We merely observe his dogged determination in putting pressure on colleagues, pleading with the Deputy Mayor, painfully crawling down office hallways, and quietly resisting the threats of gangsters.

In passing from the first to second divisions of the film, viewers are forced to consider why it is that the film has not ended with Watanabe’s death. Equipped with recent observation of Watanabe’s suffering, experiences, and ultimate enlightenment, we engage with the mourners of the wake scene in their deliberations. They question why Watanabe behaved the way he did, whether he knew he was approaching death, and whether he in fact brought the playground to fruition. Here we observe how he is perceived and misunderstood by others. Most importantly, through character recollections, we perceive both that Watanabe ultimately found happiness and meaning in life before death and also that his chosen actions led him to such accomplishment.

Ikiru presents infinitely more than an idealism centered on the individual as hero and agent for social change. It presents more than a prescription of “good deeds” for the sake of enlightenment and transformation in modern society. Ikiru proposes that healing one’s spirit is always possible, that a Faust-like search for meaning in earthly and spiritual realms has an answer. Kurosawa answers the existential question posed in Rashomon (1950): how should one live in a meaningless world, where death is certain, individuals are selfish and self-serving, and God does not exist? In that film, Kurosawa altered the original story of Akutagawa to present the woodcutter, also played by Shimura, as redeemer of the world through his final act of taking an orphaned baby into his home. Despite the importance of self-sacrifice and altruism in such a feat, Ikiru and Watanabe demonstrate that of primary importance to the individual, to the rebirth and empowerment of one, is the creative deed. Through the purpose and act of creation, Watanabe proves to resolve many tensions presented through the film, such as the shallowness and insufficiency of immediate satisfaction of the senses contrasted with the need to live a youthful, passionate existence, and the difficulty communicating one’s thoughts and feelings to those supposedly closest to one despite the isolation and loneliness of the individual.

This essay presents a dialectic progression of moral discovery for Ikiru??’s protagonist and for our own example. We turn to the film with a moral perspective central to our task. In fact, we will find this to be Kurosawa’s intention; he provides a narrative that reveals its own moral tensions to viewers. As a moral text, ??Ikiru may be interpreted in many ways, and various texts will enhance our study of such a mature work. Kurosawa himself considered a script to be a living thing. [4] For instance, Ikiru is open to interpretation through the lens of Joseph Campbell, as a “separation from the world, a penetration to some source of power, and a life-enhancing return.” [5] We will explore the moral implications of separation and isolation, that these may be necessary for the individual, as well as the significance and level of specificity of the “return.” The goal of this study, however, is to behold what is the “source of power” touched by Watanabe. Through his example we find that it is not merely the individual’s ability to recreate himself that is transformative and enlightening but rather his ability to do so through the act of creation.

2. Death as Presumption: the Universality of Ikiru

Behold myriads of angels present in all waiting, ready to accomplish the order of the Deity! Think, O my soul, upon thy state; art thou ready to be called to night unto the dreadful hour of divine inspection? – Solomon Gessner [6]

First shown to ??Ikiru??’s audience is the X-ray picture of the protagonist’s stomach. The narrator announces his disease, thereby eliminating traditional suspense. The X-ray appears once more during Watanabe’s hospital visit, further strengthening the fatalistic tides of the film. Entering the hospital waiting room, Watanabe passes two nurses dressed in white wheeling out a covered body. Drums beat a funeral dirge as a man in the waiting room coincidentally lists Watanabe’s symptoms as those of severe stomach cancer. With death as a presumption for our hero, the question and focus for viewers immediately changes. It is no longer a question whether Watanabe will live or die, but rather, whether he will live for the first time in his life. When the narrator dryly explains that “in fact, this man has been dead for more than 20 years now,” it is more pitiful to observe Watanabe at his desk, surrounded by stacks of paper that must have taken years to accumulate, repeatedly checking his pocket watch, than to observe the X-ray holding the fate of his condition. Now we perceive an individual carelessly wasting time, bereft of passion, cause, or dream. Death, our fear of it, and the inner-desire to live our lives to the fullest resonate with people on a universal plain. These issues are not bound by Japanese or other contexts.

Watanabe is sentenced to death, as we all are. Yet he knows just how and when his death is to take place. This makes immediate the question we all must face. Experiencing such a present sense of death during life, Watanabe suffers great loneliness and sorrow in his awareness. At first, consciousness of his illness overshadows all. Before realizing his life has been merely an empty placeholder, Watanabe assumes a state of shock and despair in considering death. Immediately abandoning work, several days pass between the first night of his discovery and his reappearance in a dark corner of a bar. Considering the lack of purpose, presence, and meaning in his life until this point, we may assume Watanabe has not previously reflected seriously on the prospect of death and dying. Now, his despair encompasses not only fear of death as that which is unknown and brings life to an end but also the startling effects of his first interaction with death as a concept. This further highlights the universality of Watanabe’s feeling and experience.

??Ikiru??’s focus on the great loneliness of the individual and the struggle to achieve meaningful encounters with others also proves relevant to all.

Fear in the face of death is traditionally, especially in the West, though perhaps not so in Japanese culture, associated with guilt, conscience, redemption, God, and the afterlife. None of these are explicitly alluded to in Ikiru, nor does religion play a significant role. In this way, Kurosawa allows viewers to consider death however they so wish; he neither promotes nor discounts a particular interpretation of death, further broadening the film’s accessibility. [7] For Kurosawa, the focus is on living. Death is merely the presumption (despite the fact that one English-language version of Ikiru was titled Doomed).

The honest suffering of a man in search of meaning is of universal import. Watanabe, playing a typical bureaucrat, is an everyman’s hero, gently played by Shimura. He is the embodiment of the modern-day hero, without great intelligence, physical strength, or supernatural ability. [8] On point is Kurosawa’s declaration that “a film should appeal to sophisticated, profound thinking people, while at the same time entertaining simplistic people…A film should satisfy a wide range of people, all the people.” [9]

3. Watanabe’s Silent Decision

Despite the protagonist’s lending to identification and reflection on a universal plain, certain actions prove unique and morally relevant. For instance, psychologists have often found that an individual’s subjective belief that hope is lost, the future is abbreviated, or death is approaching results in apathy and admission of defeat, on both mental and physical levels. Viktor Frankl, a Jewish psychiatrist who struggled for survival in the Nazi concentration camp of Auschwitz during World War II, and who monitored suicide watches in various camps, explains:

The prisoner who had lost faith in the future—his future—was doomed. With his loss of belief in the future, he also lost his spiritual hold; he let himself decline and became subject to mental and physical decay. Usually this happened quite suddenly, in the form of a crisis, the symptoms of which were familiar to the experienced camp inmate. We all feared this moment—not for ourselves, which would have been pointless, but for our friends. [10]

Watanabe despairs immediately after receiving news of his impending death, hiding in dark corners of his son’s room, bursting into tears, and hurrying beneath bed covers. He avoids attending his office and is absent from the film for several days before reappearing, again in a dark corner, this time in a café. However, Watanabe never seriously considers total surrender. Ironically, his completely passive prior existence may have not only set the stage for his later rebirth but also precluded his surrender to death by making the need to truly live paramount.

Watanabe refuses suicide, though apparently considers it briefly in certain moments. At the start of the night-scene, in which Watanabe and a cheap-novel writer, the self-proclaimed Mephistopheles, explore the vices of Japan, the writer says, “it’s suicide to drink when you have stomach cancer.” Watanabe replies, “but…I can’t die. I want to…but I can’t…die. I don’t know what I’ve been doing with my life all these years. I’m such a fool.” (emphasis added). Later in this scene, Watanabe displays a sick smile to the writer as the sound of a nearby train approaches, perhaps hinting to thoughts of suicide. [11]

On balance, however, Watanabe’s self-conscious determination to find meaning in such circumstances, knowing death approaches and being ignorant of that which may prove worthwhile in life, is unique and prescriptive. This choice on his part is not emphasized in Ikiru, since most of the first division of the film deals with his experiences in search of meaning, not his initial decision to search. We are merely left to consider Watanabe’s words, “I can’t die.” In disclosing his suffering to the writer, Watanabe explains that “it’s not my stomach,” silently placing his hands on his heart. Choosing to find meaning displays a deep optimism that such meaning exists. It also proves to be self-empowering through directing Watanabe toward a purpose. Later we consider whether undertaking a goal and striving for its future fulfillment is central to ??Ikiru??’s message, or subscribing to more specific kinds of deeds and approaches to the world bears most moral weight.

4. Attempts at Experiencing Aliveness, Finding Meaning

A. “A vending machine of dreams and infatuations”: the Night-scene

Watanabe’s cancer awareness echoes Tiresias’ warning to Oedipus that “this single day will furnish you a birthday and a death.” [12] News of terminal cancer wakes Watanabe from his slumber and sets him upon a moral odyssey. This odyssey is not about the glory of conquering or the excitement of adventure; it is instead of the honest suffering of a lonely bureaucrat. First on his tour is the sensational night-scene. Here Watanabe experiences traditional, socially accepted moments of aliveness and considers their worth for him. It is a night of song and dance, wine and women, which ultimately fails to uplift our hero despite its positive effects, including further shock to Watanabe’s dormant system and a brief overcoming of his sense of isolation.

The night-scene is a tour guided by writer-Mephistopheles through the vices of Japan, where dreams come free and easy. Watanabe visits a pachinko parlor, a bar, a cabaret club, a large dance hall, and a strip club, often nodding off from exhaustion. Many types of music and sound are layered throughout this scene as Watanabe and the writer move through various environments, alleys, and rooms. Lights and mirrors add to the dream-like effects as Watanabe becomes a child of sensations. Stimuli shock his system: trumpets blare in his ear at a bar, standing him upright in surprise, and the sight of an exotic dancer’s undressing causes him to release a shriek. Through these experiences, with the help of alcohol, Watanabe learns to forget, becomes loud and outspoken, dances, chases after female dancers, and finally smiles.

After losing his hat, Watanabe purchases a new one which repeatedly serves as a symbol of his rebirth. The hat is alluded to many times throughout the film, by his family members, coworkers, mourners, and a police officer who briefly comes into contact with him. It symbolizes his ability to shed a stale past and undertake a positive change.

Watanabe fights loneliness in this scene through his interactions with the writer. He instantly discloses his situation to the stranger and is received with understanding. Women touch him or sit on his lap throughout the scene. Watanabe dances with one in an extremely packed mass of people collectively swaying in a cabaret club. Even a woman’s theft of his hat proves to be contact previously unknown to Watanabe. These interactions, though stimulating, serve to expose the reality of Watanabe’s inner-isolation and separation from those in proximity to him.

Participating in the amusement of pachinko, alcohol, dance, and the opposite sex, may prove to Watanabe that he is not alone in his struggle for meaning. Many rely on immediate distractions and superficial solutions. However, as the writer declares, “ecce homo—this man bears a cross called cancer. He is Christ.” He is isolated and alone in this suffering. With tears in his eyes, and in a choked, raspy falsetto, Watanabe sings “Gondola no Uta,” a 1920’s song that serves as the theme for the film, opening the movie without verse. The song begins as the camera displays the swaying of hanging beads, the pendulum representing time’s march:

Life is brief
Fall in love, maidens
Before the crimson bloom
Fades from your lips
Before the tides of passion
Cool within you
For those of you
Who know no tomorrow

Life is brief
Fall in love, maidens
Before your raven tresses
Begin to fade
Before the flames in your hearts
Flicker and die
For those to whom
Today will never return…

Dancers stop their movements to stare at the singing Watanabe. The girl on his lap shrinks away from him with a startled look on her face as he refers to the “fading crimson bloom.” The second stanza features a close-up of Watanabe with tears in his eyes. Singing, barely moving his lips, Watanabe is eventually carried away by the writer as he lets out a final “life is brief” verse. His audience has grown thoughtful and crestfallen, distanced from Watanabe as if he has a contagious disease. The scene serves not only to demonstrate the powerful distance between Watanabe and others in the film but also to call those close to him, including viewers, to reflect on his message of life’s transitoriness.

The night-scene also serves to dismiss immediate gratification of the senses and escape from sobriety as absolute means to fulfillment. Watanabe explains that through drinking “for a little while, I can forget my cancer and all the other painful things.” Such tactics are commonplace today and most likely abused detrimentally. Watanabe himself later becomes sick in an alley. Inside the taxi carrying Watanabe, the writer, and two girls, Watanabe’s sadness and physical pain are emphasized by the juxtaposition of the girls’ singing of a cheerful American song. Such juxtapositions occur throughout Ikiru. Ultimately, happiness lies not in this dreamlike world for Watanabe. Its benefit proves as superficial as the eyelashes and makeup removed by the women in his taxi ride. Often throughout the scene he and the writer are filmed through fences and structures that give the appearance of their being caged, hurrying to escape.

B. Interpersonal Encounter and the Possibility of Altruism

Ikiru considers the importance of forming interpersonal relationships in a two-fold manner. Family and company, groups naturally evoking intimacy, devotion, and closeness are discarded and exposed as unworthy and unable to deeply understand or relate to Watanabe. Such groups are depicted as restrictive associations that must be overcome. On the other hand, through Watanabe’s transformation—his search for and achievement of meaning—the man forms relationships, mostly with strangers, that appear to transcend the ordinary and reach the emotional and spiritual. For these strangers, Watanabe has become a model for their own lives. Now, we consider the promise of interpersonal encounter in Watanabe’s search for meaning. Ultimately, such promise is activated only through his later transformation, and not as a direct means to personal fulfillment.

Watanabe’s sense of isolation is epitomized by the scene immediately following his hospital visit. He walks about a busy street but not a sound is heard. Suddenly, the roar of traffic, jackhammers, and the street surprise both Watanabe and the audience. The audience is granted a look inside Watanabe’s mind to find the man oblivious to his surroundings. In terms of specific relationships, Watanabe finds it most difficult to disclose his illness to those people supposedly closest to him—his family and friends. Moreover, social, economic, and generational borders restrict communication throughout Ikiru. Simply consider the misunderstandings of and varied perspectives on Watanabe’s life that mourners display while attending Watanabe’s wake.
Love and the power of personal, passionate encounter as a model or means to develop one’s life is absent from Ikiru. The romantic is represented merely by Watanabe’s nostalgic gaze on his departed wife’s portrait and the brief memory of losing sight of the hearse carrying her to burial. In this particular flashback, windshield wipers symbolize time and the memories that have passed. The relationship between Mitsuo and Kazue, Watanabe’s son and daughter-in-law, shows little of the power of personal encounter in a loving relationship.

Ikiru explicitly reveals the unworthiness of family, and questions the importance of communal bonds generally. Most illustrative is the father-son dichotomy. Palpable distance exists between Watanabe and Mitsuo, increased by misunderstandings and a generational gap that recalls Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons. Mitsuo first mentions his father by calling him a “petty bureaucrat.” Respect is absent in his claim that “even Pop wouldn’t want to take all that money to his grave.” Watanabe hides in the corner of his son’s room, most likely intending to disclose to Mitsuo the fateful news of his cancer, until hearing Mitsuo and Kazue discussing him and his savings. He leaves claiming that nothing is wrong—his son is too selfish to consider alternative causes to Watanabe’s sadness aside from his eavesdropping and hearing their discussion. In fact, Mitsuo fails to take notice of his father’s agony and never learns of his illness. He is more interested in whether Watanabe squanders his savings. Ironically, through a chance misunderstanding, Mitsuo concludes that his father has taken a young mistress in Toyo, played by Miki Odagiri, and scolds his father for his “degenerate” behavior. Once again, such remarks prevent Watanabe from explaining to his son the true cause of his suffering.

Viewers learn, through Watanabe, that 30 years of continuous work and significant time spent unmarried as a widower were for the sake of his son. Still despairing from his recent lay-diagnosis, Watanabe hears the laughter of Mitsuo and Kazue upstairs. This worsens his despair, as it appears they laugh at him. Suddenly, Watanabe hears the call of “Dad” twice. Music stops before Watanabe climbs the stairs to his beckoning son, only to receive an order to lock the front door. Watanabe descends with head lowered; all hopes of reconnecting with Mitsuo have vanished.

A series of flashbacks demonstrates how far father and son have grown apart. These flashbacks prove to be the visual equivalents of Watanabe’s freely associated thoughts. A baseball bat used in locking the door to the house leads to the memory of Mitsuo playing baseball and hitting a single. Watanabe shouts “Mitsuo” in congratulation in the stands before the film cuts back to Watanabe’s room for a close-up. Here, “Mitsuo” sounds twice though Watanabe fails to move his lips—the call is internal and in Watanabe’s choked voice. Returning to the baseball diamond, Mitsuo is called out in a run-down. As Watanabe sits down in the stands we return to his room as he shrinks down into sitting position. The camera, however, moves upward, providing a greater sense of his descent. Immediately, Watanabe recalls his adolescent son on a gurney in a hospital lift, similarly descending as the camera climbs. After informing his son that he cannot remain with him for the appendectomy, Mitsuo is wheeled away. Cutting back to Watanabe’s room, “Mitsuo” sounds twice again. Mitsuo’s being wheeled away lends itself to the flashback of Mitsuo’s train-departure for war. Son holds father before jumping back onto the moving train. Now, “Mitsuo” sounds nine times, echoing off in a final call. These images, so varied and freely instigated, show the breadth of memory father holds for son. Though these memories hold meaning, they emphasize the absence of successful communication.

“I have no son. I’m all alone,” Watanabe explains to Toyo, the young worker who becomes quite important to him. “My son is somewhere far, far away—just as my parents were when I was drowning in that pond.”

Further character dichotomies, often termed “Dostoevskian doubles,” present viewers with the unconquerable space between individuals. [13] For example, Watanabe seeks contact with the young Toyo. This relationship is explored more fully in the following section. On balance, however, Toyo fails to understand Watanabe, even after learning of his terminal illness and utter need to find meaning.

Emphasizing the inability to openly interact with others as a cultural phenomenon is the brief relationship between doctor and patient. Watanabe frankly declares to his doctor after hearing a diagnosis of mere mild ulcer, “honestly, please tell me the truth.” The doctor’s assistants turn away in shame as he refuses to comply. Apparently, denying terminal illness was customary in Japan, suggesting a culture closed to honest, open communication. Interestingly, the stressful work Shimura performed in transforming into Watanabe’s character actually resulted in his having a stomach ulcer by the close of filming. [14]

Group dynamics demonstrate socio-economic boundaries to interaction as well as the obscurity of Watanabe’s inner-hopes and motivations. At Watanabe’s wake, the six Kuroe women who began the film supporting the playground proposal enter to pay their respects. Huddled by his portrait and sobbing loudly, the women are juxtaposed to the bureaucrats quietly sitting nearby. For effect, the camera alternates between close-ups of each of the poor women and each of the cold, unemotional faces of Watanabe’s prior co-workers.

The wake features mourners deliberating over the following questions: Why did Watanabe act so strangely prior to his death? Did he know death was approaching? And did he in fact cause the playground to be built? Implicitly, they ask whether he is a role model. The varying perspectives at the wake serve more than anything else to display the great difficulty in fully grasping another’s motivations and attitudes to life. Prepared with our knowledge of the first part of the film, we cannot but engage with the mourners in holding them to be in error. Most distanced from Watanabe’s true motivations in supporting the playground proposal is the Deputy Mayor, who is least empathetic to Watanabe’s goal. The mayor explains to the press that an autopsy revealed the specific cause of Watanabe’s death to be cancer; however, such a politically invested individual is quite far from realizing just how or why Watanabe lived the way he did, which may have determined when the protagonist was prepared to die. The certainty with which he refers to the autopsy contrasts with the obscurity of Watanabe’s life. Moreover, the mayor attempts to level Watanabe’s actions beneath the “context of his office”—to minimize his personal involvement and role in the park’s establishment.

Without evidence of a human bond uniting individuals, arguments in favor of altruism, compassion, and empathy prove difficult. Despite ??Ikiru??’s powerful argument for the loneliness of the individual, whether caused by chance misunderstanding, selfish blindness, or socio-economic and generational gaps, altruism and human compassion indeed play significant roles in the film. Though Kurosawa offers no specific set of moral values, a general form of kindness indeed colors Watanabe’s ultimate achievement.

Watanabe heads the “Citizen’s Section” of a bureaucratic agency representing the public. He later finds meaning through his role as civil servant, providing a playground for slum children—the single greatest act of kindness in Ikiru. In addition to freely offering sleeping pills to the needy Mephistophelean writer, purchasing stockings to replace those torn for Toyo, and taking her for food at her mention of eating only sardines, subtle acts of kindness appear throughout the second part of the film, primarily in the form of flashbacks. These acts of kindness and sympathy occur between Watanabe and those who have been touched by his authentic living after he experiences a form of enlightenment and commits through action to fulfill his creative purpose. These individuals, including the Kuroe women and police officer, support the notion that an intuitive sense of kindness, related to personal closeness, is significant for Kurosawa’s audience. Yet such moral connections stem from Watanabe’s later, developed approach to the world. They do not stand alone as possible or praiseworthy outside the context of his creative determination. Interpersonal encounter in the film, on balance, only proves that Watanabe must separate himself from family, company, and society if he is to grasp his personal means to fulfillment. Such a process of separation, according to Campbell, is vital to the hero’s transformation.

C. Living through Another: Toyo’s Youthfulness

Still unable to find a purpose worth living, or dying, for, Watanabe seeks contact with a young woman in order to live through her vicariously and to emulate her apparent aliveness. As a first-year actress, Miki Odagiri plays Toyo with a youthfulness that is authentic. For Watanabe, her youthfulness and passion are indicative of something necessary to his own aliveness, perhaps a light-hearted, hopeful optimism.

Toyo’s representation of youth and vitality begins in the opening scene. Her laughter startles those in the office, eliciting a “how dare you?” from one. She then reads a joke aloud that draws no laughter. It ridicules workers who refuse to take absences: they do so not because they are too busy, but because if they were absent others might recognize how unnecessary their position is. Despite her youth, Toyo is extremely perceptive of the life-sapping environment of the public agency. She decides to quit her position, opting to work for a children’s toy factory, because “it’s killing me…nothing new ever happens.” If only Watanabe had held such beliefs years ago perhaps he might have led a more fruitful life.

Her intuitive understanding of the apathy of the office is bolstered by her comical creation of various nicknames for workers. These include Sea Slug, Fish Kite, Ditch-Cover-Board, Fly Paper, Daily Special, Rice Noodles, and, of course, The Mummy—Watanabe’s personal epithet. Each name signifies specific characteristics. By identifying with “the mummy,” and laughing at himself, Watanabe is able to briefly detach from his old self and take on Toyo’s perspective. Such a subtle respite may psychologically lead Watanabe to seek Toyo’s attitudinal secrets.

Toyo, unlike most characters in the film, laughs at Watanabe’s absence from work. She even giggles after nearly being hit by two vehicles in a busy street. Her carefree nature is supported by her appreciativeness. She explains to Watanabe that he is “lucky to live in such a house.” And after receiving new stockings she is incredibly elated, exclaiming “I’m so dizzy.” For a brief moment, Toyo is even able to convince Watanabe that he adores his son. Her happiness grows along with her contagious laughter at an ice-skating rink, pachinko parlor, amusement park, and movie theater. Watanabe performs these youthful activities (such as falling on the rink) but is unable to internalize the exuberance she displays. Soon, their relationship takes on an unnatural, almost parasitic, feel. The lightness of prior scenes between the two emphasizes the tension of their final meal. In their last meal together, viewers observe Watanabe’s attempt to drain the life from young Toyo. She sits afraid of him, uncertain as to why Watanabe desperately wishes to be with her:

Watanabe: I nearly drowned in a pond once when I was a child. I felt exactly the same way then. Everything seems black. No matter how I struggle and panic, there’s nothing to grab hold of [clawing at the air], except you.

Toyo: But why is anyone like me so…

Watanabe: It’s just that, that, you’re, I mean…when I look at you, it warms me up…right here [touching his heart]. This old…this old mummy…in other words, you’re like, you seem like my family…No, that’s not right. You’re young and you’re healthy, so that’s why…No, that’s not right. In other words, [quickly rising from his seat across from her and sitting next to her, cornering her] in other words, why are you so incredibly alive? You’re just so alive. That’s why I’m envious. This old mummy envies you. Before I die, I want to live just one day like you do. I’ll live that way before I die. Until I’ve done it, I can’t just give up and die. In other words…I just want something to…I want to do something. But it’s just that, I don’t know what. But you do know. No, maybe you don’t, but you…

Toyo: But I don’t…[squirming with fear]

Watanabe: No, tell me, [pressing against her] how can I be like you?

Toyo: But all I do is work and eat…

Watanabe: And what else?

Toyo: That’s all [pushing him off].

Watanabe desperately seeks to overcome his sense of isolation through interactions with Toyo. His deep desire to mimic her “aliveness” results in his honest, naïve question: “How can I be like you?” But Toyo’s aliveness seems accidental—neither self-conscious nor self-chosen. She fails to understand Watanabe’s needs and cannot provide him with the answers he seeks. Instead, she represents certain symptoms of the individual satisfied with his lot. Watanabe, despite his physical condition, will exhibit similar joy and youthfulness shortly. More importantly, his youthfulness will encompass a self-consciousness that further strengthens his fulfillment. For now, their interaction merely confirms the existence of Watanabe’s isolation. Specifically, Toyo is repulsed by the disclosure of his impending death.

5. Watanabe’s Rebirth: the Happy Birthday scene

Only birth can conquer death—the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new. Within the soul, within the body social, there must be—if we are to experience long survival—a continuous “recurrence of birth” (palingenesia) to nullify the unremitting recurrences of death…When our day is come for the victory of death, death closes in; there is nothing we can do, except be crucified—and resurrected; dismembered totally, and then reborn. – Joseph Campbell [15]

The Happy Birthday scene immediately follows the aforementioned dialogue, taking place in the same café, and represents both Watanabe’s enlightenment and symbolic rebirth. Watanabe’s moment of inspiration is meaningful for its communicating that no one is beyond salvation or personal empowerment. It is the turning point of Ikiru. For our inquiry, however, his “rebirth” is most essential in terms of the content of his realization, akin to the “source of power” Campbell references—that Watanabe must take specific action to fulfill his search for meaning. Therefore, his spiritual rebirth must not be viewed detached from a commitment to acting in the world, specifically, to the creation of something new.

In the café, Toyo grows increasingly uncomfortable with Watanabe and his downcast expression. She looks away, clutching her overcoat, and seems as if she is to turn ill. Similar to the effects of Watanabe’s song in the night-scene, his behavior here solidifies the distance between himself and Toyo. In fact, the distance between individuals, and Watanabe’s sense of loneliness, are felt strongest in the film at this moment. His sadness is juxtaposed to the jovial music playing in the background.

Toyo explains that in making toy-rabbits for children, she feels as if she is playing with every baby in Japan. Her creation provides her with a special closeness to strangers. She places a white toy-rabbit on the table, framed perfectly between Watanabe and herself. This rabbit will later take on the meaning of transformative youthfulness. “Why don’t you try making something too?” asks Toyo. Watanabe replies, “what can I possibly make at that office?” He lowers his head in despair, claiming his life is beyond saving. “It’s too late,” he says.

Over the course of the film, Watanabe has not only been unable to find the meaning and inspiration necessary for his transformation from “living dead” to being “worthy of death” but also he has been met at each turn with a self-conscious loneliness. With all seemingly lost, Watanabe raises his eyes to catch some reflected light that appears to glow. “It’s not too late. No, it’s not impossible. I know I can do something there. I just have to find the will,” he says. (emphasis added). Throughout this statement, Watanabe stares at the toy-rabbit, Toyo’s creation, in front of him. Finally, he grabs it, holding it close to heart, and quickly descends the staircase repeating “there is something I can do.” (emphasis added). At this point, it is clear Watanabe has something specific in mind, most likely, the creation of the children’s playground. In a wonderfully crafted moment, Kurosawa depicts Watanabe descending the stairs just as “Happy Birthday” is played loudly by trumpets; many young children frame the staircase in honor of the birthday-girl, who ascends just as Watanabe departs.

Such spiritual realization is colored by the toy-rabbit’s symbol of youth and creative achievement and Watanabe’s grasping a particular creative purpose opened through his office. His inner-enlightenment cannot be detached from his instantaneous physical behavior of clutching the rabbit and descending the stairs, as if called to immediate action. Furthermore, the remainder of the film demonstrates Watanabe’s unfaltering commitment to accomplishing his creative goal. He behaves as if action alone is significant—that man is neither his motivations nor knowledge but his deeds. Ikiru supports the view that a personal rebirth or enlightenment requires action to fulfill its potential. Transformation occurs through deed, not mere contemplation. Unlike his experience of the “automatic vendor of dreams” presented in the night-scene, Watanabe must now work to accomplish his creative purpose.

6. Watanabe’s Return: the Creative Deed

Kurosawa’s conception of the creative deed as a means to personal salvation stands not simply as support for the process of making something new nor for the satisfaction possible in providing the future with a lasting remnant of one’s life’s accomplishments. ??Ikiru??’s example of creative action, depicted through Watanabe, encompasses significantly more. It represents the unity of the individual’s mind and body, will and action, and the personal happiness and actual change such unity may achieve. It further supports the view that much of what we consider to be youthful, in terms of outlook, passion, and behavior, may be experienced and shared by anyone, at any age and in any circumstance, through the transformative act of creation. Most powerful, in my opinion, is ??Ikiru??’s expression of the ability of one’s personal, unified determination, depicted by Watanabe’s creative acts, to reach from the personal to the interpersonal, serving as both a model for others and as a unifying power.

Watanabe’s drive to create a children’s playground and the mourners’ interpretations of his behavior expressed at his wake raise various questions as to the central moral meaning of Ikiru. Watanabe’s actions also touch on the purely altruistic. Therefore, after the following review we will entertain relevant alternative meanings to ??Ikiru??’s moral philosophy.

Part 2


1 Stephen Prince. The Warrior’s Camera. Princeton University Press 1991, p. 75.

2 “It is Wonderful to Create.” Criterion Collection Supplement (2002).

3 “A Message from Akira Kurosawa.” Criterion Collection Supplement (2000).

4 Id.

5 The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Princeton University Press, 1973, p. 35.

6 Death of Cain, Oxford Press, Kessinger Publishing Legacy Reprints, p. 323.

7 Perhaps the film’s parallel to man’s struggle for redemption before death provides welcoming subject matter to those of Christian and Western traditions. This may be viewed as an attempt by Kurosawa to extend the film beyond Asian audiences, specifically.

8 Roger Ebert, Ikiru.

9 Quoted in Hirano, “Making Films for All the People,” p. 24.

10 Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, 2006, p. 74.

11 Kurosawa, in 1971, for reasons unclear, slit his wrists. The act may have been related to the release of and response to the film Red Beard (1965). Prince’s The Warrior’s Camera, p. 9. His older brother committed suicide at an early age and the subject was often discussed in his life by virtue of his family’s strong samurai tradition. Something Like an Autobiography. Translated by Audie E. Bock, Knopf, New York 1982, pp. 84-88. No such approach or consideration is found in Ikiru.

12 “Oedipus the King” translated by Paul Roche, published by The New American Library, 1958. p. 40.
fn13. James Goodwin. Akira Kurosawa and Intertextual Cinema. Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.

14 “It is Wonderful to Create.” Criterion Collection Supplement. (2002)

15 The Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 16-17.

Aryeh Kaufman was born in New York City in 1982. He studied philosophy and psychology at Columbia University before attending Harvard Law School. Aryeh is currently a practicing attorney in New York. His academic interests center on literature, poetry, and various intersections of psychology and artistic expression. Theories of creativity, specifically relating to the subconscious, are of particular importance to him currently.

Volume 13, Issue 4 / April 2009 Essays   akira kurosawa   japanese cinema