Ikiru is Japanese for “to live.” The film bearing the word as its name begins with death. The camera shows an x-ray of the stomach of Kanju Watanabe, a Tokyo bureaucrat; the narrator informs the audience that Watanabe is suffering from an incurable cancer that will take his life in less than a year. As director Akira Kurosawa takes us through Watanabe’s life post-diagnosis, it becomes clear to both the audience and Watanabe that he has lived a life without any meaning. What follows is a journey of self-exploration and a meditation on what it truly means to live that still resonates now 70 years after the film’s release.
Ikiru was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and touches on many of the same themes throughout its two hour and twenty-three minute runtime—family, jealousy, and bureaucracy, to name a few. The director and cowriter, Kurosawa, needs no introduction in his home country, but American audiences might know him best as the man behind Seven Samurai.
Watanabe is a dull, unaccomplished bureaucrat, who has, like the vast bureaucracy he inhabits, accomplished very little in his life. After learning he has stomach cancer and will soon die, Watanabe attempts to spend his final days discovering how to lead a happy life. It would rob readers of the full beauty and depth of Ikiru to get too detailed about the plot of the film, but in the end, Watanabe, a man who the narrator tells us at the start is “barely alive” and “just drifts through life,” is shaken out of his lifelong passivity and discovers that to live is to act on something he believes in.
One moving scene in particular plays out this message. The scene is presented almost as a throwaway, with no build up or mention later. Watanabe is confronted by a gang who wants to build a red-light district where our hero is overseeing the building of a park, a project flailing in bureaucratic limbo that Watanabe attempts to move forward in his dying days. In this scene Watanabe, a skeleton of a man, stands down a group of scar-faced gangsters without uttering a word. Instead it is the expression on his face that tells the story, an expression that I at first found hard to put into words. Such things are, after all, subjective and left to the interpretation of the viewer. But the description that I ultimately landed on was doggedness.
The scene filled me with thoughts of the world today. With all the darkness and cynicism and sadness we see around us across the globe, examples of the doggedness Watanabe displayed when coming face to face with evil often get lost in the shuffle. But they’re there. It’s a quality in the faces of the children who walk through the doors of St. Jude’s Hospital on a daily basis. It’s there in the faces of the women who secretly meet to receive an education under the Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. It’s there in the faces of Volodmyr Zelensky and the men and women of Ukraine who are fighting off tyranny with all they have. It’s a quality summed up nicely in this film and embodied in its title, Ikiru. To live means to not merely pass through the world but to do something with your life. To live means standing for something, advocating for something, believing in something and fighting for it. The enemies and obstacles we each face may be different—a mob, an evil dictator, the status quo, the brevity of life—but the doggedness required to face them is the same.