A Study of Kurosawa’s Ikiru, Part 2:

Rebirth, the Creative Act, and the Moral Dimension

by Aryeh Kaufman Volume 13, Issue 4 / April 2009 24 minutes (5861 words)

A. Building the Playground

After experiencing his spiritual rebirth, Watanabe immediately returns to his office to announce his intention to build a playground in the slum, which is at risk of being overrun by gangsters and vice. He informs coworkers that all bureaucratic departments must cooperate to realize such a plan—something unheard of in this working culture. He requests a report on the proposal and is met with a coworker’s expression of the impossibility of such a request. Watanabe explains that such work merely requires the appropriate will for accomplishment.

His positive outlook and dominant personality are further expressed by the arrangement of actors and objects on screen. Initially fenced in by two coworkers in his cluttered office, Watanabe becomes the dominant figure as the camera focuses in on him. “Happy Birthday” plays once again in brass at a slow tempo, representing the internalization and continuation of his prior realization. In an example of Watanabe’s forceful determination, the protagonist tears off the paper slip declaring the playground proposal to be under the jurisdiction of the Engineering Department. Requesting a bicycle, Watanabe rushes out of the office to look at the site for construction, leaving coworkers to chase after him with his briefcase.

Such proactive behavior is completely contrary to his attitude at the start of the film. Watanabe’s first words in the film effectively passed the same playground proposal to the Engineering Department. His presence among numerous stacks of paper and his record of perfect attendance imply his rare departure from the office. Moreover, his prior “thesis” proposal to increase department efficiency, perhaps holding meaning for Watanabe in the past, was converted into a wipe for his “rubber” stamp. Now, however, Watanabe has become master of his office environment, utilizing tools and workers available to him to accomplish his goals.

From the start, the six Kuroe women represent individuals fighting for change. Their active petitioning to drain the swamp and create a playground serves as a perfect counterpoint to the bureaucratic machine. “We call people like you time-killers,” one woman declares to an ineffective bureaucrat. These women, much like Toyo, recognize the passivity and worthlessness of the bureaucracy. They stand for the individual spirit struggling for a goal with nothing more than united voice and will. By linking Watanabe’s purpose to that of the Kuroe women, Kurosawa reinforces Watanabe’s personal struggle against the bureaucratic machine, his championing of those he purportedly represents as a public servant, and the expression of his independent will. By associating with the women, Watanabe confirms the importance of making change in the world.

After rushing from the office, Watanabe next reappears to viewers in a portrait at his funeral ceremony. He has passed away, to be remembered through literal flashbacks. Numerous recollections further prove that Watanabe continued to dedicate his remaining days to creation of the park and that such dedication and work may have even kept him alive. Flashbacks depict Watanabe persistently requesting from each department chief consideration of his proposal. He appears silently protesting potential dismissal of the playground and actively defying the Deputy Mayor. On one occasion Watanabe is shown bowing low to all workers despite their age and rank. He participates in overseeing the construction of the playground and even opposes a threat to his life made by gangsters seeking to use the site for their own purposes. In a moment considered a “shocker” by his coworkers, Watanabe silently leads the Kuroe women up the stairs of his office building as their representative. These actions confirm that Watanabe has taken responsibility for his existence and has realized the importance and uniqueness of his position. Through his will to create the playground, to make a tangible change in the world, he finds meaningful acts to perform as part of his “return.” Purpose and goal result in consequential action, which in turn reinforces Watanabe’s sense of empowerment and purpose.

Joseph Campbell explains the following:

Everywhere, no matter what the sphere of interest (whether religious, political, or personal), the really creative acts are represented as those deriving from some sort of dying to the world; and what happens in the interval of the hero’s nonentity, so that he comes back as one reborn, made great and filled with creative power, mankind is also unanimous in declaring. [1]

Certainly, Watanabe’s transformation from servile worker to active public servant represents one significant “dying to the world.” “The mummy” has finally been laid to rest. In this sense, creative acts, encompassing the volitional drive to create the playground, recreate Watanabe. The act of creation not only results in something new being formed but also in the essential recreation of the creator. Furthermore, Campbell’s statement may be applied to Watanabe’s physical death. Watanabe’s “nonentity,” his absence between the first and second divisions of Ikiru, results in his spiritual return to those at his wake, in the form of his portrait, his hat, the toy-rabbit, and even a wind-up clock, all which have been transformed by Watanabe’s deeds.

bq. B. Affirmation of ??Ikiru??’s Moral Approach

Despite potential divergence of moral interpretation, Ikiru provides viewers with a moving scene that answers in the affirmative the question of whether Watanabe truly is able “to live” before his death. A police officer enters Watanabe’s wake and explains his brief, though meaningful, experience with the protagonist. After silently lighting incense in Watanabe’s memory, and putting aside a portion of sake, the police officer introduces his flashback to the mourners and audience. Recalling the specific time of the encounter, he sincerely regrets his failure to bring Watanabe out of the cold, perhaps thereby preventing his death. He explains, “he seemed to be so perfectly happy…he poured his whole heart into that song of his…his haunting voice…pierced the very depths of my own soul.” Watanabe appears in the flashback gently swaying on a children’s swing in his new playground as snow falls. The shot moves through the bars of a playground structure and catches Watanabe as he sings “Gondola no Uta” once again, this time with violin, harp, and keyboard accompaniment:

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

This song provides the only music of the second part of Ikiru. It confirms Watanabe’s inner-tranquility and contentment and touches on the sublime. Kurosawa claims there exist certain moments of “true cinema” that are most inspiring and beautiful. [2] This must be one of them. Like the windshield wipers of the car following his wife’s hearse and the swaying beads of the cabaret club in which Watanabe first sings these sad verses, Watanabe’s swing sways like a pendulum, and finally counts down to zero. The hero has achieved something meaningful through the creation of the playground; now he celebrates—his struggle, accomplishment, and life itself. As Watanabe sings the verses “for those of you/who know no tomorrow,” the camera depicts the mourners with heads bowed in silent prayer, as if being blessed by the deceased. Whether these mourners, as well as the audience, will internalize his example is uncertain; however, it is clear that Watanabe refers to all of us in his final song.

bq. C. The Creative Deed Explored

The man confronted with making a decision perceives his own duality as a duality of good and evil, that is, of a sense of direction and powerful impulses. Only a soul incapable of assembling its forces into a whole chooses evil: it lets its directionless impulses take over. In the soul whose decision stems from its unity, impulse and sense of direction—the undiminished force of passionate drives and the unswerving directness of intent—are one. In the realm entrusted to him, such a man perfects the work of creation. And the perfection of any matter, the highest or lowest, touches the Divine. – Martin Buber [3]

One feels inclined to say that the intention that man should be “happy” is not included in the plan of “Creation.” – Sigmund Freud [4]

Despite Freud’s ironic statement, Kurosawa provides viewers with broad justification for the positive moral appraisal of the concept of creation—one that approaches the biblical. Happiness may be achieved in the plan of creation through human creation. Regardless of one’s belief in religion or God, one may appreciate the Old Testament’s declaration that man was created in God’s own image. Throughout Genesis, one finds God’s nature to be first and foremost that of a creator. Accordingly, when we create, we reach the divine.

“Creation,” for the sake of moral study, is difficult to define. It encompasses basic notions of the human act of creating something and implies possession of the power to create. The conception of creation drawn from Ikiru proves fairly elaborate. Put simply, however, creation presents a goal-oriented process that may or may not result in accomplishment but that characteristically unifies personal energies and strengths for a purpose just as the creative process expressed through an individual may serve as a unifying example to others. Primarily, creation involves realizing possibilities, on the individual or interpersonal level, through a unifying process.

Watanabe’s actions aimed at the creation of the playground capture a youthful energy and passion touched upon in his interactions with Toyo. In addition to perhaps prolonging his life, which may be inferred from his dying immediately after the playground’s completion, [5] his actions imply a youthful disregard for authority and social pressure. His persistence in the face of reprimand and impossible odds implies a naive, though empowered expectation. Like Toyo, Watanabe is finally able to appreciate his surroundings, on one occasion expressing childlike wonder at a sunset. “How truly beautiful,” he proclaims. Watanabe, as Buber explains, benefits from a sense of direction that not only sheds passive, death-like characteristics but also channels passionate drives for the sake of perfecting and realizing a creative goal. As opposed to Toyo’s youthfulness, Watanabe’s attitude directs his passion and intellect toward one purpose. His newfound aliveness is not as diffuse and lacking in self-consciousness as Toyo’s youthfulness. Watanabe has unified and channeled those sporadic moments of aliveness touched briefly in the night-scene and in interactions with Toyo.

“There is nothing that says more about its creator than the work itself,” claims Kurosawa in his autobiography. [6] Watanabe strives to create a children’s playground and is first to swing on its swings. These facts color ??Ikiru??’s portrayal of creation as entailing an aliveness sought by Watanabe throughout the film.

Just as Toyo claimed a closeness to Japan’s children through her creation of toy-rabbits, Watanabe’s creation connects him to the slum children and to others who encounter the driven man in his final days. His recollected actions in the second part of Ikiru open the possibility of altruism and of meaningful encounter with others. This resolves much of the tension posed by “Dostoevskian doubles” and Watanabe’s inability to communicate with his son. It also removes from his creative deed a selfishness or solipsism that could prove detrimental to a moral approach centered on creation.
Emphasizing a positive shift in viewing interpersonal relationships is the fact that Watanabe is able to affect total strangers. Watanabe serves as direct representative of the Kuroe women and meaningful bonds form between them. In one flashback, Watanabe is shielded from the rain by a woman holding an umbrella for him. She follows him into deep rain and mud to cover him. Once again, Watanabe appears as the dominant figure in this scene. In another flashback, after falling down amid construction vehicles at the developing playground site, Watanabe is spotted by a fellow coworker. This man does nothing; however, two Kuroe women rush to his aid and carry him to safety. Another brings him water. In a most moving scene, these women attend Watanabe’s wake and express their honor and appreciation through uncontrollable sobbing. None of the other mourners, primarily coworkers and family members, grieve so emotionally for Watanabe and shame permeates the room. Watanabe’s relation to these women is reciprocal: they seek expression and change through him while he requires a basis for his creative action. On point is Buber’s articulation: “When a man is singing and cannot lift his voice, and another comes and sings with him, another who can lift his voice, the first will be able to lift his voice too. That is the secret of the bond between spirits.” [7]

We have already considered the lasting impact Watanabe left on the stranger policeman, who was moved by a chance encounter with the man. Yet others at the wake, despite their drunken condition, hint at the effect Watanabe has on them. Ohara-san explains to a coworker that “you couldn’t have done what Watanabe-san did.” Another claims, “compared to Watanabe-san, we’re just worthless scum.” One mourner appears most moved by Watanabe’s example and though he tries to champion Watanabe’s role in creating the playground, he is repeatedly cut off. Another mourner exclaims that “despite the [bureaucratic] system and his stomach cancer, Watanabe accomplished so much.”

As for Watanabe’s estranged son, he is merely left with the hat symbolic of his father’s rebirth. Clutching the hat and holding back tears, Mitsuo asks his wife, “but Dad was so cruel. If he had stomach cancer, why didn’t he tell us?” Refusing to champion the power of family, Kurosawa leaves Mitsuo with questions that, at best, may unlock the secrets to Watanabe’s transformation.

bq.D. Creation as Lasting Gift

Ikiru demonstrates that Watanabe’s transformation not only affected those around him before his death but also left spiritual remnants of the hero beyond his passing. His hat serves as both a fresh stimulus and farewell to Mitsuo. The toy-rabbit featured in the Happy Birthday scene is a part of Watanabe’s still life at the close of the wake sequence. It is filmed next to Watanabe’s wind-up alarm clock, symbolically transforming that which is aging and temporal to that which is alive and young. His 25-year work commendation certificate, once a gravestone, now stands as a testament to his meaningful accomplishment. Linear time has been transformed.

The wake begins with a close-up of Watanabe’s photograph. Just as the portrait of Watanabe’s departed wife stirred him to recall memories of her, Watanabe’s portrait transforms the first part of Ikiru into a distinct flashback for the viewer, to be kept as a personal memory. His portrait is then shown to viewers from numerous angles in almost every shot of the second part, emphasizing Watanabe’s spiritual presence among the mourners. Through his creation, Watanabe is able to return to the world both through the physical existence of the playground (consider his passing away there) and through spiritual inspiration to both mourners and audiences. Watanabe now exists in his lasting gifts of creation, transformed symbols, and moral example.

The final scene of the film depicts children laughing and running about the new playground. One swings on the very swing Watanabe sat in the pseudo-climax of the film. The swing’s motion still symbolizes time’s pendulum, but cannot be detached from the youthfulness present in the scene. The child abandons the swing, which Kurosawa leaves open and swinging for some time before the close of the film. This is an invitation to the audience to take a seat. Time has finally been transformed into possibility. Above, someone silhouetted against a cloudy sky, perhaps the spirit of Watanabe, stares down at the park from an overpass and walks off. His identity is uncertain but the outline of his hat is familiar. In such scenes, Kurosawa adroitly fuses characteristics of eternity to his notion of creation, mixing them with spiritual elements that touch on the mystery of life and death.

8. ??Ikiru??’s Audience and Watanabe’s Necessary Isolation

According to an experimental psychology study, audiences that watched Ikiru demonstrated significant reduction in death-related anxiety as compared to those that did not. [8] Such a response touches the surface of many forms of viewer-engagement Kurosawa establishes throughout the film. Kurosawa displays skill in audience psychology by forcing viewers to reflect on Ikiru and not merely empathize with its main character. Many instances either prevent viewers from emotionally identifying with Watanabe or disrupt plot progression for the sake of cold reflection. These moves strengthen ??Ikiru??’s value as a moral text to be personally studied by viewers.

Consistently, close-ups portray Watanabe’s pained expression as his eyes seek contact with viewers. Despite nearly breaking the “fourth wall of film,” these expressions distance viewers by promoting a sense of shame in bearing witness to his pain. This occurs throughout the film, highlighting the inability of the viewer to assist Watanabe.

Many scenes accentuate Watanabe’s absence, further distancing viewers from the protagonist. He is missing from his desk when the Kuroe women return from a bureaucratic runaround. He hides in the darkness of his son’s bedroom and in the corner of a café, before surprising viewers with his appearance. His office desk frequently appears without Watanabe present. And the entire second part of the film features Watanabe merely in pictures and memories. The broken gap felt in passing from the first to second parts of the film exemplifies the effect of distance on viewers.
Multiple perspectives hinder viewer identification with Watanabe by disrupting the film’s narrative. The film is depicted through an omniscient narrator, Watanabe himself, Watanabe’s flashbacks, family members, the mourners’ various interpretations and misunderstandings, group-spaces in which Watanabe is absent, and various trick shots. These all point to the hiddenness of the individual and the impossibility of complete understanding of narrative. Just as Watanabe was unable to live through Toyo, viewers are prevented from fully identifying with Watanabe. Considering that emotions will necessarily be triggered in depicting such a moving story, Kurosawa utilizes distance and perspective to prevent emotional responses from blocking our reflective capacities. Doing so makes Watanabe’s joyful scene on the swing that much more relevant—it serves as the dialectical solution to the film’s question of whether he will ultimately “live.”

Supporting the view that Kurosawa intends viewers to actively internalize and reflect upon aspects of the film are explicit appeals. The narrator asks viewers twice whether Watanabe’s passive existence “is what life is all about.” The doctor asks his young male assistance, “what would you do if you had only six months to live, like him [Watanabe]?” The man bows his head without answer as the doctor turns to his female assistant: “What about you Aihara?” He offers the question to both sexes. The Mephistophelean writer explains, “you’ve really made me think tonight…you’re rebellious spirit moves me.” And a young coworker asks at Watanabe’s wake, “how do you think he felt, dying all alone in that park?” Such direct calls to viewers, including Watanabe’s song, enhance ??Ikiru??’s status as a moral text by self-consciously challenging us.

Completely limiting an audience’s emotional response to such a film is nearly impossible. Feelings of pity immediately result from the news of Watanabe’s certain death. In this way, the distance created by Kurosawa between viewers and Watanabe allows audiences to reflect upon their own senses of pity and empathy and the fact that these exist and form naturally. This serves as partial proof that we have certain altruistic tendencies within us.

Kurosawa further prepares viewers to internalize Watanabe’s life as an example by depicting various coworkers deliberating the meaning of Watanabe’s final days, his behavior, whether he in fact knew he was to die, and whether he “created” the playground himself. Viewers want the misunderstanding mourners to think as they do, to believe that Watanabe did in fact accomplish a worthy goal and transform his life and that without Watanabe the playground would not have been. Viewers are prepared to argue and preach to these mourners—to do so with force—influenced by the knowledge and insight gained from the first part of the film, which now stands as absolutely real. We understand Watanabe’s situation and that he suffered from the knowledge of his terminal cancer. The mourners know the events immediately leading up to his death but not his inner mind. Kurosawa depicts drunken mourners disparaging the bureaucratic system, usurping credit for the playground from Watanabe, and finally claiming superficially, “I’ll work at it like I’m a man reborn…sacrifice the self to serve the many.” However, the next scene presents a mirror image of the opening scene: the chief officer, sitting in Watanabe’s place, passes off a potential project to the Engineering Department. One man stands up in silent protest, only to be submerged behind stacks of paper. Such an explicit failure to internalize and act on Watanabe’s lesson provides the strongest incentive to viewers to avoid such similar fate.

The perspectivism of the wake scene serves not only to inspire viewers to actively support Watanabe but also to grasp the ultimate incommunicability of enlightenment. Everyone views Watanabe’s life and death through the lenses of their own particular life and belief system. Mitsuo believes his father’s behavior is attributable to his overhearing talk of savings and pensions; Watanabe’s brother believes his transformation is due to a mistress; the Deputy Mayor claims most of the credit for the playground for himself. Rashomon forces viewers to question the veracity of conflicting perspectives. Ikiru, however, provides viewers with flashbacks that are literal and accurate in the wake scene. Mourners respond jointly to the flashbacks as if they too were watching them on screen. Therefore, Ikiru may be interpreted as building upon Rashomon??’s perspectivism. In ??Rashomon, viewers must choose to believe either that no single truth exists, only perspectives, or that one view is more appropriate or truthful than others. The latter view implies an active engagement with the film that is similarly featured in Ikiru. An omniscient narrator serves as a teacher of Watanabe’s lesson to viewers, who, though perhaps differing in terms of interpretations of what exactly transformed Watanabe, accept the hero’s version of events as opposed to those of the erring bureaucrats. On balance, in addition to supporting one perspective through the demonstration of alternative perspectives, Ikiru develops ??Rashomon??’s perspectivism by promoting the moral approach that one must necessarily detach from others to find meaning in life. Personal enlightenment and transformation cannot be achieved through the complex differences inherent in alternative perspectives. Such a view conforms to Campbell’s theory that detachment from interpersonal bonds and social groups is essential to personal transformation. “The hero has died as a modern man, but as eternal man—perfected, unspecific, universal man—he has been reborn,” claims Campbell. “His second solemn task and deed therefore…is to return to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed.” [9] Watanabe, through his creative deeds, returns to society after despair and isolation reached a peak. His creative action helps form meaningful interpersonal bonds; however, his return does not entail submission or acceptance of social mores and guidelines. This is one of the key lessons of his life. Watanabe struggled with and threatened to undermine office culture. He defied the Deputy Mayor thereby “changing city hall” and brought meaning to his public servant position through such an overthrowing.

Throughout the film, objects and architecture serve to trap Watanabe in space. Time threatens his search for meaning. Family and company hypothesize about his absence before his death, and seek to categorize his actions at his wake. Even Watanabe’s maid reacts negatively to his new hat. Such a leveling process that devalues individual expression and potential is epitomized by the bureaucracy in a way that parallels organizations and structures in Kafka’s works. Individuals strive to achieve goals despite overwhelming social pressure to passively submit.

Despite Watanabe’s return to society through his creative purpose, his actions fail to completely rid him of loneliness and isolation. To accomplish his goal, he must struggle with social constructs. The personal nature of the creative deed, though inspiring to others, must not recognize social limitations. Just consider Watanabe’s failure to reconcile with his son; his return is not aimed at resolving interpersonal dilemmas. It has as its aim the sole creative purpose that unifies the life remaining in him. Creation as a moral creed, therefore, fails to fully resolve the individual’s experience of isolation.

9. Challenging the Primacy of ??Ikiru??’s Creative Deed

Alternative interpretations of Ikiru prove infinite. The certainty Kurosawa provides viewers of Watanabe’s ultimate success in experiencing a meaningful existence, through the swing flashback, and the numerous methods through which the director actively engages viewers to participate in the unfolding moral drama, increase the likelihood an individual audience member takes away a personal lesson. Perspectives necessarily diverge. However, study of the following challenges to the primacy of ??Ikiru??’s prescription of creative action serves to clarify the concept and offer competing evaluations in fairness.

First, Ikiru, by depicting the transforming story of Watanabe’s life, prevents categorizing the active process of creating as secondary to the final achievement of that which is created. Certainly, Watanabe’s joyful death in the playground points to an ultimate accomplishment that validates his efforts and transformation. And his coworkers discuss whether Watanabe in fact played a role in establishing the playground, focusing on the final result. However, the five months prior to Watanabe’s death and the completion of the playground, shown to viewers in several flashbacks in which he dedicates his days to the proposal, must be accounted for. None of the flashbacks stress accomplishment; they all emphasize dedication and persistence. No flashback confirms the existence of specific moments in which Watanabe actually succeeds in convincing those in charge to proceed with the park proposal. The scene on the swing validates that his rebirth and process of reestablishing a place for himself in the world have been successful. Though Watanabe expected no reward, and was snubbed at the playground’s opening ceremony and seated in the last row, he persisted. The creative process brought meaning to the five months of Watanabe’s work. Without his second chance at “living,” his death would not be as celebratory. Therefore, the process of striving to accomplish his goal must not be distinguished as less relevant than his final success. This is something to be taken from the misunderstanding mourners’ statements.

Second, one may interpret Ikiru to hold that fulfillment lies in one’s personal undertaking of some purpose or course of action that proves meaningful to one, that Watanabe merely found such a personal cause that resonated with him to the extent that it became transformative and powerful. Such a view may encompass the notion of work—that meaningful work may provide such fulfillment. The notions of work and creation seem related on many levels, but such relation will not be discussed here. To claim that Ikiru champions an active pursuit of meaning in life is certain. Such an approach is found in Viktor Frankl’s definition of the “will to meaning.” He explains, “What man needs is not homeostasis but what I call ‘noödynamics,’ i.e., the existential dynamics in a polar field of tension where one pole is represented by a meaning that is to be fulfilled and the other pole by the man who has to fulfill it.” [10] Such an outlook provides for infinite possible means of fulfillment. However, to claim that the power of creative action and purpose serves as beneficial for Watanabe and not as an example to others is hard to accept. Kurosawa failed to stress the importance of Watanabe’s silent decision to search for meaning before death. Instead, his “rebirth” and “return” are consistently tied to personal creation, with the toy-rabbit serving as a key source of inspiration. Moreover, Watanabe’s drive to create the playground and the playground itself lead to numerous results that emphasize the breadth of the creative deed as a moral tool. The lasting impact of Watanabe’s spirit, the interpersonal union for the sake of one goal, and the internal union of Watanabe’s passion and intellect all stem from his drive to create something new. At the very least, Kurosawa delivers us his personal interpretation of a means to fulfillment, conjured from thoughts of his own death. [11]

Third, we consider the distinction between the creative deed and the good deed. Is Ikiru about the choice to act rightly or the choice to act on one’s personal goals that may or may not prove meaningful to others? Here lies the greatest theoretical gap in the film’s moral focus. Many signs point to Kurosawa’s appreciation of “sacrificing the self to serve the many.” The playground itself, built for slum children, epitomizes kindness. However, as discussed above, the focus of final creation must not depart from its process. What proves meaningful to Watanabe is his existence in pursuit of his goal. Watanabe fails to outwardly project a sense of altruism or moral force in the process of his supporting the playground. He is depicted as a man possessed by a personal mission, who, though championing the Kuroe women, is driven not by kindness but by his belief and need to make something happen. The toy-rabbit and playground symbols, however, represent creation as well as youth, kindness, and closeness to others. Therefore, though Kurosawa fails to provide clear support for an explicit set of altruistic tendencies, instead focusing on the power of the individual, Ikiru draws such moral notions into its overall message.

Fourth, considering the important role suffering plays in religion and morality and the fact that Watanabe suffers throughout much of the film, is Ikiru directed at championing suffering as a means to meaning? Frankl claims that “suffering is an ineradicable part of life, even as fate and death. Without suffering and death human life cannot be complete.” [12] He further explains that “suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” [13] Campbell might also conclude that suffering is a part of the necessary “dying to the world” that must precede one’s rebirth. Watanabe demonstrates that even in suffering one may find transcendence and a new beginning. His example, therefore, serves not to enshrine suffering itself but to promote the individual’s will to make a choice and alter his situation despite difficult odds. Watanabe’s ultimate achievement may be relatively heightened by the depths of suffering overcome; however, suffering itself throughout the film simply entails loneliness, despair, and distance.

One of Frankl’s approaches to assisting patients in overcoming depression and “existential frustration” mirrors Watanabe’s initial shock over terminal cancer. Frankl declares, “Live as if you were living for the second time and had acted as wrongly the first time as you are about to act now.” [14] More analogous even is his statement that “when we are no longer able to change a situation—just think of an incurable disease such as inoperable cancer—we are challenged to change ourselves.” [15] These approaches focus on realigning personal values and goals, on distilling them. They also raise the question of whether Watanabe’s transformation and rebirth was made possible only through his unique contact with death. As the writer explained to Watanabe, “misfortune teaches us the truth…we only realize how beautiful life is when we chance upon death.” If so, the universality of Watanabe’s moral example is limited in reach. Despite this possibility, Ikiru has proven to inspire and lessen anxiety over death just as Frankl’s techniques have proven a source of inspiration to many.

10. Kurosawa’s Creation

??Ikiru??’s moral example is supported by various sources, each adding a particular element to the whole. Kurosawa was born into a family with a strong samurai tradition, as was Shimura, who learned much about the samurai code of Bushido. [16] Samurai influence may be seen in ??Ikiru??’s upholding quiet dignity in the face of death, and in the film’s focus on the moral development of the individual. Watanabe displays spiritual courage and integrity as a modern-day samurai.

Moreover, Zen teachings find expression in the film. Watanabe embarks on an educational process of spiritual enlightenment with neither teacher nor guide. His self-reliance stems from his separation from society and ultimately results in inner-peace and tranquility.

Kurosawa created many films depicting incredibly powerful or intelligent heroes, many of them samurais. These films, including Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (1962), and Seven Samurai (1954), are balanced by those depicting heroism in modern times, such as The Quiet Duel (1949), The Bad Sleep Well (1960), High and Low (1963), and Red Beard (1965). In these latter films, Kurosawa does not bring heroism down to earth so much as he exalts the everyman to heroic status, as one who achieves a meaningful change. Postwar Japan, with its necessary recovery and transformation, may be viewed as a modern-day battleground for such heroes. Social, economic, and political developments can effectively dehumanize individuals as much as was possible in the past. And depression and disillusionment are hallmarks of our young generations.

Through film, Kurosawa seeks to expose the dangerous apathy threatening to undermine our personal development. He presents a possible means to fulfillment. Personally supporting the process of creation as a director, Kurosawa worked for nearly 60 years in film. His work proves the importance of art and the creative professions for enlightenment and moral teaching. Kurosawa explains, “movie directors, or should I say people who create things, are very greedy and they can never be satisfied…That’s why they can keep on working. I’ve been able to work for so long because I think next time, I’ll make something good.” [17] This attitude is mirrored in the writer’s reflection to Watanabe: “We’ve got to be greedy about living. We learned that greed is a vice, but that’s old. Greed is a virtue, especially greediness for life.” Such greed exemplifies Watanabe’s uplifting transformation and the passion inherent in a purposeful creative process. This greed should be an example to us all in our personal searches for fulfillment.

Part 1


1 The Hero with a Thousand Faces, pp. 35-36.

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

3 On Judaism, a series of speeches (1908-1919), Shocken Books. p. 66.

4 Civilization and its Discontents, based on the 1930 translation by James Strachey, Hogarth Press. p. 76.

5 Others may claim that his struggling for the playground brought about an early demise.

6 Something like an Autobiography, p. 189.

7 The Way of Man and Ten Rungs Citadel Press 2006, p. 101.

8 Francis G. Lu. Personal Transformation through an Encounter with Death: A Study of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru on its Fiftieth Anniversary_, Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2006, Vol. 37, No. 1, p. 2.

9 The Hero with a Thousand Faces, p. 20.

10 Man’s Search for Meaning, p. 105.

11 See footnote 2.

12 Id. p. 67.

13 Id. p. 113.

14 Id. p. 150.

15 Id. p. 112.

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

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

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