When art ceases to be mystery to the art-lover and whispers into his ear all that it encompasses in itself, a rare joy fills the lover's being: that of subtle realisation. And this is where Ikiru triumphs: it connects with the sensitive viewer in such an intimate way, that he cannot be but moved by the experience. Ikiru is gentle and soothing, and though it has both dramatic irony and biting satire, it never speaks too loudly for itself. It keeps coming back again and again like a dirge floating around in the stillness of the silent night-- slow, haunting and curiously, both melancholic and uplifting. This is a film, as Ruskin Bond puts it in his own simple way (about his own writing), for the gentle and quiet man. A movie that transcends the barriers of time and remains relevant no matter which age and world we live in. This is after all about the greatest purpose of life itself: living!
As the film begins we are introduced to our protagonist, Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), the Section Chief of Public Affairs in the municipality of some modern Japanese town. Crushed and buried by bureaucratic red-tapism, Watanabe is, like his colleagues, busy with doing nothing-- leading a meaningless, purposeless dead life with only the flimsy pretext of being an important and busy man. Something a young subordinate of Watanabe, Toyo (Miki Odagiri), sums up in a little joke about a city official who can't go on vacation not because he has some work, but because he has to keep up with such a pretension! When a group of women from the town come to the Public Affairs department with a request to have a mosquito-infested cesspool filled up, Watanabe promptly redirects the group to the Engineering Section, which again redirects the citizens to some other department concerned with Childhood Welfare and so on and so forth, until they all come back to the same Section of Public Affairs, furious with the lack of co-operation and responsibility. But Watanabe is now gone for his appointment to the doctor, and the women have little choice but to lodge a petition forwarding their request for official sanction. A petition that predictably ends up in the massive backlog of work that will have to grind it's way through the complex and frustrating machinery of bureacracy.
At the hospital, Watanabe finds himself waiting with a rather garrulous man who, in the course of conversation, starts talking about stomach cancer: it's symptoms, and how the doctors avoid a confrontation with petrified patients having the disease with a roundabout talk of mild ulcer that will heal itself with time, and needs neither medicine nor surgery. Watanabe's face grows pale as he realises with alarm that he has exactly the same symptoms as has been described by the man, and he somehow clutches onto a faint hope that the doctors won't pass the verdict that he dreads most now: mild ulcer. But as luck would have it, they do. As the inevitability of an impending end dawns on Watanabe, it is not death that terrifies him most. It is his conscience suddenly seeing everything clearly now-- that for the past thirty years, he has not done a single thing worth the name. That night, as the old man sits in a dark corner of the living room, he learns a second bitter truth-- that the son, Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko), for whom he'd sacrified every thing that he once loved does not care for him anymore. Nothing beyond the inheritance that he will receive. Lost in painful nostalgia, Watanabe still struggles to find a single purpose that would redeem the days he has on his hand from the crippling, bustling inactivity of the last thirty years. And what answers him back is a deafening silence that shatters his already tattered heart. The two certificates of merit for outstanding civil service hanging on the wall seem to mock him. Watanabe has one thing on his mind now: find a purpose that can erase out all the painful memories out of his heart.
He draws a sum of 50,000 yen from the bank and taking an un-notified leave from the office, finds shelter for the night in a drinking den. Where he sorrowfully narrates his story to the owner, a young samaritan who pretends to understand what the old man exactly needs at the moment and offers to help him out. A tumultous night follows with games at the casino, a visit to a brothel, a striptease club and a night-time haunt for couples-- but nothing can console the aggrieved Watanabe. For his desire is not to waste away his days in hedonistic pleasure but to leave some indelible mark somewhere that won't be washed away sooner than he has gone. The train of thought suddenly brings back a song to his mind-- a song he had often heard as a young man, and one which sums up his feelings at the moment better than mere words can: Gondola No Uta (Life is Brief). As his broken monotonous voice picks up the melancholic strains of the song to the accompaniment of a piano, people wonder at the depths from which the syllables rise to Watanabe's lips. The jovial and merry atmosphere is suddenly permeated by a voice that seemingly reads a prophecy-- one that shall befall all one day. A truth that renders everything transparent.
The next day as Watanabe walks his way home, he meets the cheerful and jolly subordinate at office who had read a joke aloud the day when the women of the town had come complaining about the cesspool. This young woman, Toyo, asks if Watanabe can come to the office for a day-- she has a resignation letter on which his sanction is required for her to leave the job. Toyo tells him how the atmosphere at work suffocates her, and how it pains her to think that she can't actually do something that will make her of some use to the society. Watanabe asks her to come home with him, where he has his seal. On the way back, both the companions suddenly realise a thing or two. Toyo learns how her Section Chief is not the man she had imagined him to be-- that inspite of his cloak of the ordinary bureaucrat, he still possesses a conscience, a heart and a will to live. A will that had been rendered almost dead by years of crippling inactivity and pretentious busy-ness. Watanabe, for the first time, notices the person he'd been searching for, one who will guide him to the purpose -- the sheer vivacity and spontaneity the young girl warms his old, creaking heart and makes him wonder if the company of this charming girl is his holy grail. Watanabe's son and daughter-in-law smell something fishy about their father coming home after a night out, with this girl-- they quite easily assume that she is his mistress, not thinking for a while that he had been alone since that day in his prime when his wife died and yet not succumbed to any desire for once. Toyo's company teaches Watanabe a lot of things-- that it does no one any harm to smile once too often, that poverty cannot dampen the zest to live, and how Toyo readily prefers a laborious job in a toy factory to the dreary paperwork of the civil services without much hesitation, only because she knows what truly gives her joy: she knows she's silently playing with every child in Japan with each toy she makes. Yet another of her small jokes hits the proverbial nail exactly on it's head-- while talking of the nicknames she has assigned to each of her former colleagues at work, he comes to know from her about his own - The Mummy - and it brings to him a strange cocktail of emotions. He is relieved that someone actually sees him for what he is, and a bit flustered because it deepens his own conviction about the fruitlessness of the last thirty years.
But Watanabe can only see Toyo's fruits of happiness-- he still doesn't understand how and why. Toyo, on the other hand, is a bit alarmed by her former Section Chief's strange curiosity and interest in her company-- even she begins to have doubts about his intentions. So she tells him that she's had enough, and maybe it isn't right for them to continue meeting; agreeing to a last rendezvous only after some cajoling. This scene of the two-- Watanabe and Toyo-- sitting in a restaurant brims with a certain lack of comfort. Toyo misconstrues her former boss' advances, and starts feeling queasy, and Watanabe is somehow inconsolably desperate-- he knows that if he cannot learn what will redeem his purposeless life before the rendezvous ends, he won't have any chance at dying happily. When he asks Toyo what exactly gives her such an inextinguishable will to enjoy living: she replies, not without a profound sense of confusion, that she onlyworks and eats. This is how Watanabe sees the light-- it is in selfless work that he has to find the true meaning of his existence. At that precise instant, almost instinctively, he knows that Toyo has taught him all that he needed to know! He does not need her company any more, and in a fit of wakeful realisation, he leaves in haste. Only to further the confusion of the young girl even more-- she can't figure out what was it in her that attracted an old man like Watanabe, wondering about the nature of this short-lived relationship. Kurosawa's use of a background in the last shots of this scene is remarkable-- there is a birthday party in progress during the fateful last seconds of the meeting, and just when Watanabe finds his key to happiness, the merry notes of Happy Birthday to You rise in crescendo, as if in perfect tune with the exaltation in his mind at having discovered what he'd been searching for.
Back at work after two weeks of leave, Watanabe knows what he must do: he takes it upon himself to ensure that the work of filling the cesspool is seen through to execution. For that he crosses the barriers that his official role demands of him, and at last, a park is erected at the place. Which also marks the passing away of the old man. The last third of Ikiru takes place at the funeral ceremony of Watanabe. Which, in my humble opinion, is what elevates the extraordinary film to the annals of artistic immortality. The Deputy Mayor, in his characteristically snobbish way, declares that the wave of admiration and gratitude received by the deceased soul for his role in the building of the park is a bit too undeserved-- sure he had taken the initiative, but had it not been for him and scores of such other departmental chiefs and head-honchos, the project would still be languishing incomplete. The top-tier officials however leave shortly, perhaps citing another of those thousand reasons that present an apparent sense of being busy. The discussion among Watanabe's colleagues and bereaved family now turns to whether he knew of his ailment. They recall how he had suddenly turned from another slouch at the office to a passionate advocate of a cause-- pushing his proposal through the right quarters with much deliberation and humility. Even when he openly defied the Deputy Mayor's suggestion of abandoning his project, his tone was no more than a whisper-- simultaneously reflecting a tone of plea and purpose. His colleagues decide that he must have known his disease-- for he had often been wont to mumbling to himself that he did not have much time left at hand. A policeman, who was on guard in the newly erected park on the night of Watanabe's death, comes in to pay his respects to the now much-revered man at his funeral. He recalls how he had seen the old man happily swinging in the park singing Gondola No Uta in a voice choking with emotion. But he - the policeman - mistook him for a drunkard and left him freezing in the snow; an act that he now regrets-- perhaps that lack of action on his part caused Watanabe's death earlier than it may have been. Watanabe's colleagues, most of them drunk beyond their senses, wonder if they would have lived their last days like him had they been in a similar situation, and all but one fool themselves saying they would, surely so! Mitsuo, the son, is ridden with guilt when he realises how insensitive he had been to his father, and how kind Watanabe had been: leaving all his money back, inspite of having heard Mitsuo and his wife's conversation about the inheritance some months back. As the drunken colleagues collectively pledge to live henceforth like their late Section Chief, the lone man who abstained from the false assumptions his colleagues had made about their own possible behaviours in a circumstance similar to Watanabe's silently bows before the old man's portrait, tears brimming in his eyes.
The final irony: next day at office, and another petition flows in. The new Section Chief of Public Affairs promptly directs it, as before, to another Section Chief. And none but that lone man stands up in a protest, which predictably gets lost in the strangling ocean of red-tapism yet again. That evening as the man returns home from his work, he passes the new park. As a child on a swing leaves his seat to answer his mother's call, we, the viewers, are treated to one of the most beautifully evocative scenes throughout the movie. It is as if Watanabe's soul is still in the park, swinging there, singing his favourite Gondola No Uta. The swaying swing, the pendulum of time, records the immortality of Watanabe's life and deeds...
Kurosawa's touches in the film are masterful-- in the camera lingering over a small detail that one could have escaped noticing, and yet how that same trifle of a detail enriches the intensity and meaning of a frame manifold. It is as if he had chosen time itself as a narrator-- the sequence of Watanabe reminscing about his past are etched in pain: the pain of realisation of a wasted life. And no praise for Kurosawa is complete without the mention of his employment of irony-- that most hallowed of things that any artist wants to achieve. Shimura's acting is splendid-- his face is crisscrossed with the folds of emotions that kindle in his bosom, like paint on a canvas. Not without reason did Kurosawa work with him again and again. Miki as Toyo is delightful-- a treat for the viewer in her radiating enthusiasm and joy.
For it's timeless relevance and it's excellent use of imagery, this is a film that I'll love to see again and again. There have been several films that used the same theme (The Bucket List and Dasvidaniya I instantly recall), but none have been as subtle as Ikiru.
A half-mad, half-insensitive, half-foolish boy who desperately gropes for something in the darkness; finds light for some moments and then loses it again. And again! I have guilt and conscience, which is all I can say.