not in our stars, but in ourselves
Life is brief.
Fall in love, maidens
before the crimson bloom
fades from your lips,
before the tides of passion
cool within you,
for those of you
who know no tomorrow
Amid the syrupy American ballads, piped into Japanese cafes and bars, Ikiru‘s dying protagonist asks a rock ‘n’ roll pianist to play “Life is Brief” while he sings along: a wistful little song that was popular in 1915 or so, and one that brings the swirling party around him to a stop. All those happy, oblivious young people are at a loss at the sight (and sound) of this dour-looking middle-aged man, sadly crooning something that their parents might have known. Somehow, they seem to understand that he’s lamenting something – lamenting something fading in him, cooling in him, lamenting that he knows his tomorrows are limited. It could have been a terribly embarrassing moment for poor Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), but his mind is rather elsewhere.
Let’s back up a bit. We learn, before anyone else, that Watanabe has stomach cancer: we see the x-ray, showing the fatal blot a few months before it takes his life. An unseen, unnamed narrator wants to introduce us to his drab little life. He’s the section chief of the Public Affairs Department, where he’s worked for thirty years. The narrator informs us that, for the past twenty of those, he’s been effectively dead already. He stamps the papers that come across his desk, directs citizen complaints to other departments, never misses a day of work, eats the same noodle soup every day, and seems not to want anything more. On the day of his first absence in thirty years, he goes to the doctor. A fellow patient in the waiting room describes Watanabe’s symptoms exactly, and tells him he has stomach cancer – and tells him, too, that the doctor will say it’s just an ulcer. Watanabe goes into a tailspin. His son, Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko), and daughter-in-law (Noriko Honma), greedily discuss how much money Watanabe has and how much of it they’ll get after he dies – as he sits silently in the dark, reeling after receiving his death sentence. He realizes that he’s hardly lived at all, especially since his wife died twenty years ago, so he tries to figure out how to do it. A novelist (Yunosuke Ito) he meets at a bar takes him out for a wild night on the town (during which “Life is Brief” makes its first appearance), but it’s not enough. A young coworker, Toyo (Miki Odagiri), dazzles him with her joie de vivre and her willingness to quit Public Affairs after a year and a half to work at a toy factory – but she doesn’t want him hanging around her all the time, and tells him that the secret to living a happy life is to do something worthwhile. He resolves to return to his job and do one last thing: fulfill the request submitted by a group of housewives to turn a mosquito-laden swamp into a park. Five months later, he dies, leaving his coworkers and family to wonder what got into him these last few months. (As a side note, the last half of the film – set at Watanabe’s wake, where the mourners get drunk and discuss his final weeks and months – reminded me a bit of the dueling cop/crook meetings in M: lots of talking, lots of trying to reason their way through the problem of understanding why on earth Watanabe did all of this, finally arriving at a conclusion – and basically missing the point. Perhaps an unconscious homage, or not an homage at all, but interesting all the same.)
There’s not an actor I can remember or imagine who has as much kindness and humanity written on his face as Shimura, and it’s ideal for Watanabe. The despair on his face when he overhears his ungrateful son and daughter-in-law, or when he thinks of how much he’s left undone in his life, and how little time he has to fix it, is the stuff heartbreak is made of. And at the same time, there’s such a light in his eyes, such goodness and hope – despite or because of the cancer eating away at his insides – that it’s impossible to feel pity for him. Empathy, yes – and how extraordinary an actor has to be to induce empathy in his audience – but never anything as limp and useless as pity. Emil Jannings, they used to say, could act with his back; Shimura can bring you to his knees with a look.
Ikiru isn’t a sparsely told story, but there are so many unspoken tragedies that Shimura (and, of course, Akira Kurosawa) illuminate throughout. For example, our helpful narrator tells us that it’s been twenty years of virtual death for Watanabe at his job. Later, we learn that his wife died twenty years ago, leaving him with a young son to raise alone. No one says it, or even suggests it, but it’s not hard to connect the dots: the grief hardened into scar tissue in his soul, and he hasn’t felt much of anything since. That’s not to say it happened all at once; during a pathetic flashback, Watanabe proudly cheers on his son at a baseball game, and then cowers in shame when Mitsuo makes a mistake and the other parents (!) call him an idiot. He tried to be a good dad, it seems, but he apparently thought he had to be strong and stoic to do so, to both his and Mitsuo’s detriment. Again – no one says anything to this effect, but the grace notes are all there, indicating a father-son tragedy that could have been a movie of its own. (I’m glad we only get the father’s side, however.)
Kurosawa made some of the best samurai films going, but Ikiru is very much a document of postwar Japan. The references to it are subtle and fleeting, but in a way, it seems that the entire country is doing the same thing as Watanabe: after a devastating loss, how does one do more than exist? How to find joy again? How to find love again? There are pleasure palaces everywhere, inefficient bureaucracies everywhere, but how do they all figure out how to live again? This is a concern that Americans haven’t had to think about in a long, long time, but it seems to be fresh on Kurosawa’s mind – that and many other things, of course. In his Criterion Collection essay, Alexander Sesonske writes:
In the movies as in life, love and death hold sway, exerting an irresistible attraction on our imagination. Love usually dominates in cinema; we sit entranced for hours as affairs of the heart wax and wane. Death seldom holds the field for so long, but erupts in spectacular finales or provocative opening scenes, functioning as punctuation or plot resolution, hardly ever insisting that we confront our own mortality. Serious films about death are rare, success in this genre even rarer.
To paraphrase Nabokov, the cradle hangs above an abyss. No one is especially afraid of the abyss before we enter this world, but there seems to be an awful lot of angst about the abyss after we leave it. What is there, then, if we’re to avoid paralyzing fear of that second, unknown and unknowable abyss? Living for each other. Helping each other. Enjoying life while the blood courses in our veins, and trying to make sure that those around us can enjoy it, too. When Watanabe swings – gently and blissfully – on the swingset in the little park he willed into creation, the snow falling quietly around him, it’s a perfect portrait of fulfillment. It took him a few decades, but he figured out how to find meaning in a meaningless world.
P.S. My boyfriend thinks that the first season, especially, of Parks and Recreation is a nod to Ikiru: Leslie Knope is so damn determined to turn the pit behind Ann’s house into a park, come hell or high water, and eventually succeeds. Whatever else you say about Parks and Rec, it is a triumph of humanism in sitcom form, so I wouldn’t be a bit surprised to learn that that’s what gave the showrunners the idea in the first place.