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.