What would you do if your doctor said you only had six months left to live? Would you spend it with family and friends? How about doing everything you’ve always wanted to do, but never could? Or would you attempt one last meaningful act that others would remember you for?
This is the dilemma for Kanji Watanabe, the middle-aged protagonist of the 1952 Japanese film “Ikiru.” It is also the driving force behind why “Ikiru” is a film everyone should watch at some point in their lives.
In Post-World War II Japan, Kanji Watanabe is the head bureaucrat of Tokyo City Hall. His job entails sending the same cases back and forth through other offices that ultimately come back to him. Nothing ever gets done. Watanabe has held this position for 30 years, and has never missed a day.
“He just drifts through life,” the narrator describes. “In fact, he’s barely alive.”
After a few days of stomach pains, Watanabe visits his doctor, only to find out he has gastric cancer and has roughly six months to live.
Watanabe, not sure what to do with his life, drifts aimlessly through the city. His impending demise only serves to remind Watanabe that he’s done nothing with his life. No worthwhile memories or achievements. Nobody to remember him for who he really was. Even his only son thinks of him as a source of money, rather than someone with emotions and feelings.
“I just can’t die,” said Watanabe. “I don’t know what I’ve been living for all these years.”
He runs into a novelist at a bar, who takes Watanabe to Tokyo’s Red Light District, in the hopes of finding happiness. They go to pachinko bars, dance clubs, a strip show and even hook up with a few ladies of the night. By the end, Watanabe still feels empty and without purpose.
It isn’t until Watanabe is found by a young female coworker that things change. He’s happy around her, because of her optimism on life. She wants to leave the bureaucrat business to work for a toy company, because knowing the toys she makes put smiles on children’s faces gives her purpose.
She tells Watanabe, “Why don’t you try making something too?”
Suddenly, there’s a flicker of light in his eye. A smile comes across his face. “It’s not too late,” says Watanabe, as he rushes out of the restaurant to pursue one last meaningful act before he dies.
“Ikiru” is directed by Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who also directed “Rashomon” (1950), and the influential films “Seven Samurai” (1954) and “The Hidden Fortress” (1958). While “Ikiru” does not contain a samurai, the film’s message and meaning are just as powerful today as they were in 1952.
We all strive to have purpose in our lives, and to ultimately be remembered long after we have departed this world. That our actions can be seen by others decades after we have turned to dust, and for those people to picture someone whose life meant something.
“How tragic that man can never realize how beautiful life is until he is face to face with death,” says the novelist.
The emotional core of “Ikiru” lies here, and its something that I believe everyone on the face of the earth can relate to and understand. No matter your ethnicity, age or gender, there is something in “Ikiru” for everyone to latch onto. We are all like Kanji Watanabe. We seek meaning and fulfillment. We fear death and what it will bring about. We strive to make our lives matter.
I first watched “Ikiru” during my freshman year of college in 2008. I had just begun to gain an appreciation for films, and could hardly tell the difference between great films, like “Jaws” (1975), and terrible films, like “Transformers” (2007). As “Ikiru” unfolded before my eyes, I saw a film that went to an entirely new level of storytelling and filmmaking that I didn’t know existed. Few films have reached that same level.