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Empire List #459: Ikiru

Another entry in the list of classics, cult classics, bizarre films, and other oddities I saw while attending one of my Friday night meetings set up by OMASSUS (Obscure Movie Appreciation Society of the University of Sherbrooke). On April 9 2010, it was a Wild Card Special consisting of Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” and Wes Anderson’s “Rushmore”. There is absolutely no connection between these two movies, but it still made for an interesting evening.

“Ikiru” is a 1952 black and white Japanese classic made by acclaimed director Akira Kurosawa, the man behind films such as “Seven Samurai”, “Yojimbo”, and “Rashomon”. “Ikiru” has no samurai, fight scenes, or criminals, but it does focus on the death of one man.

That man is Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) a middle-aged bureaucrat who has spent his life working in the same dead-end job in Tokyo. He lives a boring life: filling paperwork, speaking to the same colleagues every day, and arriving home to his son and daughter-in-law. His wife died years ago and now his son only seems to care about how much money he will leave behind.

Things kick off when Kanji goes for a medical check-up for what he believes is a simple stomach ulcer. In the waiting room he meets a fellow patient who is suffering from stomach cancer. The patient painfully provides accurate details of what it feels like to have such a condition. He finishes off by telling Kanji the doctors lied to him about his condition and told him he only had a stomach ulcer. The reason being the doctors couldn’t treat him and didn’t want to give him any false hope.

Sure enough, when Kanji meets his doctors they feed him the same lies they fed the previous patient almost word for word. Kanji leaves feeling miserable. He now knows he is going to die, it will be painful, and there is absolutely nothing he can do to avoid it. The dying person at the hospital told him it takes about a year for this form of cancer to end your life. The clock is now ticking.

Any person in his position would tell his relatives, friends, and co-workers but Kanji has no idea how to begin to talk about this. Is there a good way? It doesn’t help that most of his co-workers don’t really know him, he has no close friends, and his son and daughter-in-law don’t seem to care for him. His imminent death has shown him something he should have realized a long time ago: his life is insignificant.

If this were a Hollywood feel-good movie Kanji would immediately start living life to the fullest. This would involve massive spending, travelling, making new friends, meeting women, and throwing caution to the wind, only to realize that he is not sick at all. Luckily, this is not the approach Kurosawa is going for. Kanji will die, just like we all will die one day, and like Kanji there is nothing we can do about it.

However, the news does have an impact on Kanji’s remaining time on this Earth. One night he meets a cheerful young man at a bar to whom he tells his story. The young man is deeply shaken by Kanji’s story and decides to show the old man a good time in the city’s nightclubs. They drink, party a little, meet people, but for Kanji this is all shallow pleasures. The next morning his life is still boring and he is still going to die.

Kanji then begins a friendship with a young woman who used to work in his office. She is surprised by the old man’s sudden interest in her life, but he seems harmless enough. Kanji is fascinated by her, not because of how young she is but because of how she embraces life. She is carefree, happy, and unlike him she now does something she likes for a living. Her job is simple (she builds toys for children) but it brings happiness to people.

This philosophy inspires Kanji to finally do something worthwhile with his life. He will use his office to turn a cesspool located in a poor neighbourhood into a beautiful park for children. Emboldened by his new resolution and pressed for time because of his condition, Kanji works like never before. He cuts through red tape, loses sleep, begs city officials for assistance, presses his colleagues to go beyond their call of duty, and is even confronted by mob bosses.

In the end this is the least Kanji could hope to do with his life. The alternative was for him to stay inactive until death would catch him by surprise. Even worse yet, how about living the life of a mindless bureaucrat filling the same papers day after day with no hope for the future?

This seems to be the message Kurosawa is going for. You don’t have to be the best in life, but at least try to make the best with whatever time you have. God knows the clock is ticking. Kanji was just lucky enough to know exactly when it was going to stop.

For a couple of young guys watching a movie on a Friday night, this all seemed like heavy stuff. However I can’t deny “Ikiru” is a beautiful movie that should be watched by anyone who is a fan of cinema. If I live to be Kanji’s age, I hope to see it again and hopefully be happy what I will have done with my life.

(Note: “Ikiru” means “to live”.)

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