Heroism in Ikiru
Akira Kurosawa’s films often feature a protagonist who defies social conventions and seeks to redress a wrongdoing. In Ikiru (1952), the central character Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) spends the remaining months of his life fighting the bureaucratic system. He stands alone in his efforts; even his family abandons him. Along the way, a writer and a young woman play their own heroic roles, eventually leading Watanabe to his final calling. Ikiru shows viewers the positive difference one man can make, and effectively encourages viewers to take action against an indifferent or corrupt system.
Ikiru’s opening scene establishes that Watanabe has terminal stomach cancer and that he stopped truly living his life twenty years ago: “He’s been worn down completely by the minutia of the bureaucratic machine and the meaningless busyness it breeds.” As Section Chief of Public Affairs, Watanabe sits at his desk, stamps papers, and makes little difference to the world at large. He no longer exhibits any passion or ambition. This changes when he learns that he has stomach cancer and will die in six months.
Watanabe first tries to discover life’s possibilities through a young novelist at a bar. The writer immediately takes to Watanabe and his situation, and proclaims, “We’ve got to be greedy about living… Tonight it will be my pleasure to act as your Mephistopheles.” The writer brings Watanabe around the city at night, showing him the seedier side of Japan. They play pinball, go drinking, buy a new stylish hat for Watanabe, see a striptease, and dance at night clubs. However, the writer’s efforts only reveal a shallow and phony side of existence. The night concludes with Watanabe throwing up in an alley as the writer looks on in shock.
The young employee Toyo serves as another heroic character, though not willingly. Watanabe, “fascinated by her energy and youthful exuberance,” tries to live through her (Prince). They spend a day together and go to an ice-skating rink, an amusement park, a movie, and dinner. She tells Watanabe her funny nicknames for everyone at the office, and explains how boring she found her job. Throughout the next few days, she listens to Watanabe talk about his problems. Watanabe wants to know why she is so alive and how he can live like her. She claims that all she does is eat and make toy rabbits at her job, and suggests that he “try making something too.” That suggestion gives Watanabe an epiphany; he can make a difference through his office, he just needs “to find the will.” Watanabe decides to follow through with the peasant women’s earlier appeal. He will ensure that a park replaces a mosquito-infected cesspool. He accepts his imminent death by committing himself to action (Wong).
The remainder of Ikiru occurs after Watanabe dies, and the attendees at his funeral converse about how Watanabe spent the past five months. Flashbacks show the extreme adversity Watanabe faced in his efforts to build the park. The difference between Watanabe’s and the bureaucrat’s behavior reflects Kurosawa’s feelings about Japan’s institutions, and how they need to change.
Japanese culture revolves around groups and shuns individuality. As a result, people are rarely willing to operate outside their group dictates. However, Kurosawa’s heroes learn that they must work autonomously if they want to make a difference to their communities. Watanabe receives no help from his fellow bureaucrats, and must stand up to his superiors. After his death, the bureaucrats initially refuse to believe that Watanabe built the park of his own accord. They assume he behaved within the limited bounds of his office, and that he owed his success to political coincidence and the “woman’s touch.” Through discussion, they enlighten one another about Watanabe’s determination. “The Kurosawa hero is distinguished by his perseverance, by his refusal to be defeated,” Donald Richie says (Prince.) Watanabe perseveres over both his debilitating stomach cancer and the bureaucrat’s indifference.
Flashbacks provide proof of Watanabe’s resolve. For two weeks he refuses to leave the Parks Section Chief alone without a promise to assist in building the park. He openly defies the Mayor, an act that is especially forbidden in Japan. Society functions as a hierarchy, and Watanabe risks his career by asking the Mayor to reconsider the decision to build the park (Prince.) One shot shows Watanabe walking weakly down a hallway before he grabs the wall for support; he suffers from constant pain but still works ceaselessly. He shows further courage when he confronts a group of gangsters who want the land for a restaurant row. “Who can forget Watanabe’s unflinching gaze and the mischievous smile on his face when a bully-looking member of the Japanese Mafia threatens him with death?” says Paul Wong (Wong). Kurosawa shows us that no person or circumstance can stop Watanabe’s efforts.
Watanabe further defies tradition by refusing to tell his son, let alone anyone else, that he is dying. Japanese culture places great value on the family unit, but Mitsuo exhibits only selfishness. Kurosawa makes a point to show a montage of moments in Mitsuo’s childhood, and we see that Kanji has always been there for his son. Kanji never remarried and focused only on work for twenty years, in hopes that his son would be provided for. Throughout Ikiru, Mitsuo worries about his inheritance and assumes the worst about Kanji’s relationship with Toyo. One seeming mistake wipes out twenty years of sacrifice. Kurosawa shows viewers that family ties are not as sacred and unbreakable as supposed.
Kurosawa desires Watanabe’s heroism to act as an inspiration for action. The bureaucrats discuss the difficult circumstances Watanabe overcame, and eventually come to the conclusion that he knew he was dying. They say “we’d have done the same,” and swear to one another that they will follow in Watanabe’s lead. Kurosawa leads viewers to a false sense of hope. The bureaucrats return to the office but lack the courage to follow through and make a change. This bleak and cynical ending serves to demonstrate that responsibility lies not only with the bureaucrats, but with viewers as well. Change remains impossible unless we all become heroes like Watanabe and fight for the public good.