Cinema Styles: Death gives life meaning in Ikiru | News

Note: This review is part of our legacy series. Ikiru celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.

Ikiru is the 1952 film from Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa, loosely based on Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Set in post-war Tokyo, Ikiru Tell the story of a City Hall department chief named Kanji Watanabe who receives a terminal cancer diagnosis. He decides to make the most of his remaining time on this planet, seeking the meaning of life just as death seems ever-approaching. He makes it his personal mission to have a playground constructed in a lower-income area of ​​the city. Kurosawa considers Ikiru to be his best film.

Ikiru is a film that has the ability to change the viewer. In its blunt acknowledgment of death’s inevitability, it asks the viewer what they will do with their limited time on this planet. This is a film that invites its audience to evaluate their own lives. It examines one’s legacy, and what they leave behind after their life has ended. Watanabe becomes obsessed with this concept in Ikiru. He embarks on an internal journey, searching for a meaningful life, and encouraging viewers to do the same.

This film is told in a two-part structure, mirroring the story’s focus on the duality of life and death. This binary composition shows an interdependent intertwining between the two sides, each enhancing the significance of the other.

The first half of Ikiru opens with a shot of an x-ray. This is reflective of the internal focus of that section of the movie, both in terms of the cancer spreading through Watanabe’s body and his internal search for meaning in his life. Watana seems more dead than alive, maintaining a deathlike trance as he trudges along with his repetitious existence. This section ends with Watanabe realizing life’s meaning isn’t found anywhere in external reality, but created within oneself. It’s a personal, insular journey that’s unique for each individual.

If the first half starts with an x-ray of the body, the second half can be seen as an x-ray of the soul. Part two of Ikiru opens with a shot of Watanabe’s photo at the altar of his own funeral service. Again, this first image sets the tone, with the focus being on the death and actions of the protagonist. The people who knew him sit around and tell stories about his last few months of being alive. In this series of flashbacks, Watanabe is more alive than he ever was while living, and shows our actions have the potential to outlive us.

The second half of the movie inverts the first half, offering a stark contrast between his stagnant life and his vibrant death. These dual sections reflect the infusion of life with death, and death with life. One couldn’t exist without the other.

In many ways, Watanabe’s sudden epiphany and vigor for life is like a rebirth for him. As death looms closer, he re-embraces his childhood. Building the neighborhood playground is a way for him to help the community while also channeling his younger self. Psychologically, Watanabe is moving backward time, even as time physically marches forward.

The most iconic scene in Ikiru is a convergence of Watanabe’s life and death. In the final flashback, and last time we see the protagonist, he’s seen swinging alone on one of the swings of the newly-completed playground. Snow is falling all around him as he gently sways forward and backward, quietly singing a song from his youth. Kurosawa told Takashi Shimura to sing the song “as if you are a stranger in a world where nobody believes you exist.”

This scene is beautiful and one of the best in all of cinematic history. It’s the self-eulogy of a contented man who has created meaning in his life. With his feet dangling down, he appears to embody both the frailty of old age and the carelessness of being young. Takashi Shimura delivers one of the greatest performances of all time, showing vulnerability and strength in an endlessly fascinating character.

Ikiru literally translates to “to live;” appropriate for a film so concerned with what it means to be alive. Even with its focus on death, this is ultimately an uplifting and life-affirming movie. Death is essential because it gives life meaning. Without an end, what comes before wouldn’t matter. Every action we take and every decision we make has great significance, whether or not we acknowledge it.

Ikiru is one of Akira Kurosawa’s most intimate and beautiful films. It’s an existential meditation about the nature of existence. It’s a humanist movie that magnifies life by celebrating death. It’s a film that suggests it’s never too late to give your life meaning. Whether it’s found or created, life’s meaning comes from within.

Bobby Styles studied Film at UCLA, and worked as an editor and producer on several film, commercial, and music video projects in Los Angeles. He currently teaches the intermediate and advanced video production courses in the Multimedia & Technology Academy at Monache High School. His column appears every week in The Recorder.


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