Cahiers du Coco: Ikiru



[Join Ettes leader and Fond Object founder Coco Hames as she moves through the Janus Films Essential Art House DVD box set one film at a time.]

IKIRU directed by AKIRA KUROSAWA (1952)
Running time: 143 minutes
In Japanese with subtitles

Ikiru strikes a bit close to home for me; I'm buying and sending a copy to my dad. (No, he can't borrow mine; that would mean separating it from its box-set brothers and sisters. I'm not CRAZY!) And if it strikes a bit close to home for you too, well, 1) I'm sorry, and 2) this is exactly the film you need to watch. Actually, this is exactly the film we all need to watch.

Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is a sad, widowed government stooge, robotically pushing paper and passing the buck to other departments in his pointless bureaucratic world. It's frustrating to watch his daily routine, especially when a group mothers comes in to complain about a toxic pond in their area that is making their children sick. No one wants to listen to them and hear them out, let alone DO anything about it.

Watanabe-san (as he's called by his peers throughout the film) visits the doctor and (spoiler?) finds out he has stomach cancer. Just before his realization that he has the fatal illness, in a Twilight Zone-feelin' scene, a fellow patient in the waiting room tells him that if the doctor says certain things to him (to deter from the fact) it's cancer and he will have but months to live. Sure enough, when Watanabe gets his test results, the doctor lies matter-of-factly to him, and his fate is sealed.

After attempting (and failing miserably!) to blow his pension money on booze and women, Watanabe falls into the pit of despair, feeling sorry for himself, blowing off work, wandering aimlessly, and, importantly, not telling his butthead son and daughter-in-law of his illness. But then he meets a young, vivacious (read: adorable/annoying) woman from work, who inspires him with her genuine, giggling love of life. Being around her puts a spring in his step, so he wants to be around her more and more. She gets the wrong idea and puts the brakes on their hang time, but encourages him to find a purpose in his life, not knowing he has very little of it left.

He then decides that HE is going to be the guy who helps the mothers who came seeking help, and he tirelessly works to turn the toxic pond into a playground. And he does it. And it's awesome. And then he dies.

In an interesting and abrupt cinematic move, our protagonist dies with an hour still to go in the film. This sets up the important and moving scene of his funeral, which goes on for a long while. At first, it is a small affair, with the expected few attendees there out of duty: his few family members, some coworkers, his boss. But then the women for whose children he got the playground built arrive, and they mourn passionately — obscenely, to the rigid and bored existing party — for the loss of their hero.

The people at the funeral begin to drink. As they grow drunk and reflective, they begin to speculate whether he knew he had cancer, whether he worked so fervently those last few months, because he knew he was going to die. They decide he must have known. Swelling at this nobility, they vow to follow his lead and BE the change they want to see in the world! And then, of course, at the office the next day, it's business as usual.

Ikiru ("to live") is said to be Kurosawa's most Ozu-like film, with the focus on family, generational gaps, and relationships between parents and their children. A running thread concerns the entitled generation just after Watanabe's, and how they were considered the most selfish in history. What that makes me, I couldn't tell ya. Ask my dad ...

Kurosawa once said, "Occasionally, I think of my death ... There is, I feel, so much more for me to do. Then I become thoughtful, not sad." And that is what Ikiru is about.

While I like to (mostly falsely) consider myself passably versed in many languages, as I told my friend Poni after watching this film, no, I do NOT speak Japanese or understand it. On one tour, a friend gave us some Japanese language CDs, ostensibly to pass the time in the van. We put on the first disc, and painstakingly tried to follow along with some basic first-step Japanese. Our brains hurt, what little we retained was disjointed and/or incorrect — and we realized to our utter dismay that barely half an hour had passed. That is the opposite of passing time.

I say this because this is Kurosawa, and while it doesn't hit Seven Samurai length, it's ... long. And in Japanese. So unless you can understand the language, get ready for some readin'. Like I asked my dad before completing my purchase for him, "Can you keep up with subtitles?" He said, "Sure." Good. Because this (like all these Janus classics) is required human viewing. Arigato.

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