Roger Ebert Film School, Lesson 43: Ikiru (1952)

Roger Ebert Film School is a recurring feature in which Brandon attempts to watch & review all 200+ movies referenced in the print & film versions of Roger Ebert’s (auto)biography Life Itself.

Where Ikiru (1952) is referenced in Life Itself: On page 160 of the first edition hardback, Ebert remarks that “Home video is both the best and the worst thing that has happened on the movie beat since I’ve been a critic.” He appreciates home video’s increased access to older films and its economic incentive for film restoration & preservation, but he also believes it to be inferior to a proper theatrical experience, especially for film students. He explains, “Viewing via video has destroyed the campus film societies, which were like little shrines to cinema. If the film society were showing Kurosawa’s Ikiru for a dollar and there was nothing else playing except the new releases at first-run prices, you went to Ikiru and then it was forever inside of you, a great film. Today, students rent videos, stream them online, or watch them on TV, and even if they watch a great movie, they do it alone or with a few friends. There is no sense of audience, and yet an important factor in learning to be literate about movies is to be part of an audience that is sophisticated about them.”

What Ebert had to say in his review(s): I saw Ikiru first in 1960 or 1961. I went to the movie because it was playing in a campus film series and only cost a quarter. I sat enveloped in the story of Watanabe for 2 1/2 hours, and wrote about it in a class where the essay topic was Socrates’ statement, “the unexamined life is not worth living.”‘ Over the years I have seen Ikiru every five times or so, and each time it has moved me, and made me think. And the older I get, the less Watanabe seems like a pathetic old man, and the more he seems like every one of us.” – from his 1996 review for his Great Movies series

Legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is most respected for the scale of his ambition. In the sprawling, large-cast samurai epics that typify his work, Kurosawa commands a calm, sure-headed confidence that makes full use of the scope & budget afforded him. What’s really impressive about the director to me so far, as someone who’s just getting acquainted with his work, is seeing how that confidence & control translated to more contained works. The twisty, 90-minute samurai thriller Rashomon is limited in cast & budget in a way Kurosawa’s more sprawling epics aren’t, but he explores a cyclical, experimentally subjective story structure through that small number of players to create an ambitious work so iconic it’s been parodied in every long-running TV sitcom you can name (not to mention the innovations cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa is allowed to play with in the film). Even more staggeringly, the philosophical drama Ikiru is on its surface a minor drama about an anonymous government bureaucrat’s struggles with a terminal cancer diagnosis, but Kurosawa uses that minor platform to attempt to answer, in all sincerity, what it truly means to be alive. Ikiru’s title even translates to “To Live” (or, in tandem with Ebert’s own writing, “Life Itself”), declaring upfront its intention to identify & define the very essence of existence. Its personal story of one man’s search for a sense of purpose & self-fulfillment in his final months as a government drone may not immediately seem to operate on the scale of a samurai epic that spans decades of narrative over a cast of hundreds, but Ikiru’s larger purpose of defining the nature & meaning of existence might just be the most ambitious goal of his entire career, which was defined by ambition. If nothing else, it’s a subject that covers the entire scope of Philosophy as a practice.

In order to define what it means to live, Kurosawa (and writing partner Hideo Oguni) start with what existence isn’t. Here’s where the film becomes personally insulting to me and how I’ve been wasting my own life. An alarming portion of Ikiru is dedicated to satirizing the boring, ineffective, passionless lives of government bureaucrats as they waste away behind desks affecting no measurable change in the world. As a professional bureaucrat who is currently wasting away behind a desk stacked with paperwork as I write this, my instinct is to balk at the accusation, but I can’t deny that it’s true. Any truthful movie about my life would be too boring to sit though and this film indeed initially finds its bureaucrat protagonist too tedious to directly bother with. After declaring “He might as well be a corpse,” and explaining that his job keeps him “terribly busy but, in reality, doing nothing at all except protecting his position,” the film drifts away from its declared protagonist to detail the Kafkaesque innerworkings of his office. While “his only distinguishing feature is that he has none,” the larger government agency he serves is sketched out to be an exceedingly silly organism with a personality of its own, albeit an absurdly ineffective one. Predating bureaucratic satires like Office Space, Shin Godzilla, and Sorry to Bother You, Ikiru amuses itself following the circular path of a simple citizens’ request as it’s presented to a city government desk and subsequently spirals into a needlessly complex farce that accomplishes nothing. It isn’t until our central bureaucrat learns that he has approximately six months to live before he will die of stomach cancer (a diagnosis we’re introduced to in medical x-rays before we even see his face) that the film bothers being interested in his own personal story. Who could blame it? I can barely stand looking in the mirror for more than a moment without getting bored, so I can’t imagine watching a dutiful bureaucrat go about his business for the full 143min runtime of this satirical drama.

Curiously enough, Ikiru doesn’t define what it means to truly live as being the opposite of those bureaucratic doldrums either. Our cancer-doomed protagonist initially makes the mistake of assuming that in order to imbue his life with meaning he must flee to its exact polar opposite. He struggles to reveal his existential crisis to his greedy, unloving son, but he does find youthful companionship in strangers who help him remember the vitality & hedonism of the world outside his stuffy office. A drunken rake he meets at a bar (who shares a certain swagger with Richard E. Grant’s sidekick character in Can You Ever Forgive Me?) “helps” him spend his now useless retirement money on night clubs, strip joints, and other fleeting frivolities. A young coworker whose boundless amusement he envies also briefly takes him under her wing to help recontextualize a life he’s stubbornly come to see as pointless & drab, when it is actually full of possibilities to anyone who keeps an open mind. Our protagonist’s immediate instinct to find meaning in frivolous hedonism when confronted with the question “What would you do if you only had six months left to live?” is eventually shown to be just as foolish as his lifelong dedication to dutiful deskwork. His newfound rebellious spirit is only meaningful when he applies it to the life he was already living as his true bureaucratic self. When he returns to his city government desk to get creative with the tools offered him and to think outside the box on how to organize & facilitate active government projects, he affects a real-world change in his immediate surroundings – creating meaning in his own life instead of sleepwalking through it or running away from it. Essentially, I’m a boring coward for writing this movie blog on my work breaks while otherwise drifting through the paperwork that defines my schedule. Hopefully, a terminal illness diagnosis will shock me into action to do some good around this office before it’s too late and I die having lived a life without meaning. Grim!

Ikiru is not adorned with the samurai swordfights, expansive landscapes, or intense Toshiro Milfune performances that typify Kurosawa’s work, but the director does his best to blow this personal story of one man’s existential crisis up to the same epic scale he’s used to working on. The camera work is complex in its depth, framing, and movements despite the interior spaces it tends to occupy. The themes surrounding this personal crisis are similarly ambitious despite the cramped borders of their scope, using one man’s wasted life to define the meaning & purpose of all human life everywhere. Structurally, the movie also experiments with the boundaries of its medium – not only declaring disinterest in its own protagonist in the opening sequence, but also refusing to conclude once he is deceased. A Westernized version of this story would almost certainly conclude with the protagonist’s death, with maybe only a brief coda allowing his surviving friends & family to remark upon his last-minute turnaround. There’s a distinctly Eastern philosophy to how this film refuses to register death as the logical end of the story – stretching out his memorial to what feels like a full hour of acquaintances detailing his life’s continued impact. This is a masterful, impressively ambitious work from a legendary filmmaker known for delivering masterful, impressively ambitious works. I can’t even fault the flick for calling me out as a life-wasting bureaucrat and “a walking corpse.” It was a direct burn, but an accurate one.

Roger’s Rating: (4/4, 100%)

Brandon’s Rating: (5/5, 100%)

Next Lesson: Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970)

-Brandon Ledet

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