Ikiru will make you feel inspired to make the world a better place, and then Ikiru will punch you in the fucking stomach for feeling that way.
Kurosawa has never pulled any of his punches. I wanted to start this review by talking about some of his other movies, aside from those based on Shakespeare.
In Seven Samurai, there’s a moment that nearly knocked me out of my chair the first time I saw it. Throughout the movie, one assumes that the seven samurai fighting to protect the village will emerge triumphant. As time goes by and it becomes apparent hat this won’t happen exact as you expect, you start preparing yourself for a heroic sacrifice. The samurai will all die in battle and the samurai in love will ride off with his sweetheart, despite their class differences. But then, none of that happens, because did you think this was a movie or something?
At the end, 4 of the 7 have died. If some samurai are to die, and not all, none or one, you have an idea about who it will be. You know what I mean. Most people can tell within the first five minutes of being introduced to a character whether or not that character will die. But the movie subverts your expectations entirely by killing off some characters that you thought couldn’t possibly die and keep one character alive whose name you can’t even remember. Even from a realistic standpoint, you would imagine that the best fighter at least would survive, but nope. He’s offed too. The characters are killing off seemingly at random, almost like a real battle, where staying alive is more about luck than fighting ability or how much other people like you.
Anyway, the line. The three remaining samurai are staring at the graves of their fallen comrades, marked only by their swords. The villagers are off celebrating. Kambei, the leader of the samurai remarks that they have lost. It is the villagers that have won, which is why they’re celebrating in honor of their victory, and no one but the samurai mourn the barely marked graves of their friends. The young samurai in love is even rejected by the peasant girl he’s fallen in love with. (Accounts differ on this. My swayable opinion is that she – and by proxy, the peasantry – rejects him – and by proxy, all warrior class – due to his violent nature.)
After bleeding and dying for these people, they can’t even gain acceptable, or at least a flower for their graves. It is a jarring, realistic ending unencumbered by movie logic where righteous actions will be rewarded. They will not, but the actions remain righteous nonetheless.
You can regard the ending of Rashomon as being much of the same as Seven Samurai. By the end, ideas about heroism, fidelity and honesty are scrutinized and found to be imaginary. You are not as badass or tough as you think you are, and instead of being a sword-swinging legend, you’re a pants-pissing coward. Your wife will leave you in a second for the first cooler guy who looks at her the right way. And you’re so greedy that you’ll steal off a dead body to put a few coins in your pocket. These are not movie truths; they are human truths.
So is Kurosawa just throwing depressing shit at his audience? Well, yes, but not without a purpose.
One of the things I love about Ikiru (and there are many things I love about Ikiru) is the simplicity of its story. An aging bureaucrat has been diagnosed with cancer and has about 6 months to live. The first half of this movie deals with his acceptance of this fact, as he comes to terms with his impending death. You might get tricked into thinking this is the subject of the story, but you would be very wrong.
The movie expends most of its energy depressing the shit out of you. Suddenly, maybe about an hour and a half in, the main character, Watanabe, discovers a purpose; he will build a new park using his position in the local government. The movie is promptly uplifted. He rushes out of his office filled with purpose and an important goal. He is struggling against his own death. There’s even a version of the happy birthday song in the background. As soon as he leaves the office, the screen fades to black and the narrator informs us that five months later, our protagonist has died. You’re punched in the stomach at the exact moment you feel most hopeful.
Surely the park was built though, right? Yes, but, not as you’d expect. During Watanabe-san’s funeral, we’re shown flashbacks of him working tirelessly to get this park built, and the various bureaucrats that impeded his progress. At his funeral, these same bureaucrats are congratulating themselves for all the hard work they did for building the park. They go on and on. “No, no, you were the most important person in building this park.” “No, you were.” “Well, let’s just agree we’re all pretty amazing.” This, at the man’s funeral. We are even told that Watanabe-san was seated in the bank during the opening ceremony, publically snubbed.
“Ikiru” in Japanese means “to live,” and this is ikiru: You will work hard, you will die, nobody will care, and drunken coworkers will take credit for your deeds. See what I mean about being punched in the fucking stomach?
Perhaps there is hope. Before the funeral scene closes, the bureaucrats are seen promising themselves not to let Watanabe-san’s death go to waste. The audience feels the same. We all feel like going out and making a difference goddammit before we die. The bureaucrats seem ready to do something great, and we are too. Of course, nobody does anything, including you. After the funeral, during the following day’s work, we see all of them just as lazy and worthless as they were before. An opportunity to be great even presents itself but they intentionally let it slip by. In this sense, Ikiru is speaking to its audience. You might feel inspired now, but when you sober up tomorrow morning, you will go back to doing what you did yesterday.
So where does that leave us? Is everything pointless? Are we just drifting through life? No, although he was snubbed, Watanabe-san achieved his goal. The park was built and the citizens love it. And that is the part that matters. We are all faced with impossible tasks under terrible circumstance, yet we must see them through to the end. We will, at best, die without accolades, but dying with accolades was never the goal; doing the right thing is.