Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru is a perfect movie for New Year’s Day. It’s all about a new start. The word “ikiru” means “to live” in Japanese. Kurosawa is known for his great samurai epics loaded with action and suspense where even the courtroom scenes in Rashomon and the dialogue, relationships, and personal growth in his medical drama Red Beard have a very fast pace about them. Ikiru couldn’t be more different than a usual Kurosawa film. Its story is told at a very slow pace and actually isn’t that much of a story at all. It’s more of a meditation on what it means to live.
The film opens with the x-ray picture of a stomach with a cancerous tumor. A voiceover narrator tells us that the stomach we’re looking at belongs to our protagonist. The protagonist is Watanabe played by Takashi Shimura. Watanabe has never lived. He worked, obsessed over money, believed that his work was for the benefit of his son, but his son didn’t appreciate it at all. His son was not ungrateful, he was unappreciative because his father gave him only material things and never invested in their relationship, what he really needed.
When given his diagnosis, Watanabe is told that he has no more than a year to live. He admits to a man he meets that he has wasted his life and wants to live but doesn’t know how. His new friend tries to help him live through expensive wine, parties, and strippers. Watanabe comes to see through his friend’s attempts that he is not the only one who doesn’t know how to live. He interrupts a party when the musician offers to take requests. Watanabe requests a song called “Life Is Brief.” We see Watanabe grieve as he accepts this reality not only for himself but confronts others to search their own lives as Watanabe’s health crisis has forced him to do. Through his eyes, he shows both a lost look of confusion not knowing how to live along with hope from a newfound desire to help others learn how to live, even though he doesn’t know how to do it himself yet.
Watanabe moves on in a pursuit of a new guide to teach him how to live. He ran into a girl who worked for him before the diagnosis. He hadn’t quit his job but his long absence was very puzzling to his co-workers. The girl tells him that everyone at work is excited for him not showing up at work since he was clearly a workaholic, they see it as his transformation. She’s right, but he can’t realize that transformation until she tells him. She teaches him how to have fun, enjoy life, to create, and to give willingly to others, giving what they really need instead of what is easy to give as Watanabe had previously done with his son. She encourages him to reconcile with his son, and she is the way he learns what it means to live.
After a bitter meeting with this girl that ends their friendship, he leaves a restaurant while all we hear is the sound of other patrons singing “Happy Birthday” to someone else. I don’t think this is an ironic contrast between the celebration of a birthday and the dejectedness of a man losing even more while already knowing his life is about to end as many think. Even though the relationship ended, she is the reason he knows how to live which is exactly what he leaves that restaurant to do. It is a birthday of sorts for him. The last hour of the movie takes place in flashback after Watanabe’s death, showing with absolute certainty that he did learn to live, that he did experience a new birth through that decision, and that he taught others to do the same. By the end of the movie, Watanabe has taught even those of us watching the movie 65 years after the film’s release, what it means to live.