Existentialism is a branch of philosophy that deals with freedom, authenticity, responsibility, absurdity, and the ambiguity of the human condition. Most existentialists believe that it is the responsibility of every human being to justify their own existence. An existential crisis is characterized as a crisis in which one questions the meaning of life and their purpose in this world. During the post World War II era, many were still recovering from the devastating impact of war. The war created a sense of hopelessness and despair. Many films of that time period addressed this crisis. The male protagonists in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, (1952) and Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal, (1957) face an existential dilemma when they are visited by death. Ikiru is about a man, Kanji Watanabe, who discovers he has stomach cancer. Having lived a mundane life, he tries to find meaning in the time he has left. The knight, Antonius Block, from The Seventh Seal faces a similar crisis in the sense that he is also trying to find meaning but he is more preoccupied with religious doubt.
Watanabe and Antonius set out to find meaning and knowledge only after they are confronted with death. While The Seventh Seal jumps right into Antonius’ existential crisis, Watanabe doesn’t learn about his cancer until about twenty minutes into the film. One of the most striking differences between both films is the manifestations of death. In Ikiru death takes the form of stomach cancer; it is a more abstract form of death. The opening shot is an x-ray of Watanabe’s stomach cancer.
In The Seventh Seal, however, Bergman takes it one step further and actually personifies Death. He is portrayed as the prototypical figure of Death with a long black cape and a pale face.
Nevertheless, Antonius and Watanabe are on a quest to resolve their existential crisis by discovering their purpose in life in a very limited time frame.
When Watanabe learns about the stomach cancer and that he only has about six months to live, he reevaluates his life only to find that he has been living an inauthentic and meaningless existence. In an effort to forget about the cancer, Watanabe goes to a bar where he meets a writer. He confides in the writer by telling him that he feels as though his life has been a failure and a waste. This realization is very important because it illustrates his self-awareness. He is aware of his empty life and he recognizes the absurdity of his condition. It’s absurd in the sense that his universe has suddenly collapsed without any rhyme or reason (Yoshimoto 203). According to Albert Camus, realizing the absurdity of your existence begins with a feeling of pointlessness, which accurately describes the way Watanabe feels in this scene. In a desperate attempt to do something meaningful, Watanabe sets out on a wild adventure with the writer. Their adventure, which includes gambling, drinking, and dancing, proves to be insufficient for Watanabe. He must engage his new freedom and do something meaningful (Yoshimoto 204).
Like Watanabe, Antonius is in a state of despair after he is visited by Death. By challenging Death to a game of chess, Antonius is able to buy himself some time to gain knowledge and meaning.
Rather than dwelling on his past like Watanabe, Antonius is troubled by God’s silence and the lack of certainty. He is concerned about what lies beyond this life. He wants to believe in God because the alternative would imply that everything is meaningless; yet he finds it almost impossible to believe given his inability to perceive God with his senses. Antonius cannot accept his limitations as a human being (Ketcham 74). This idea of accepting one’s limitations is part of the ambiguity of the human condition, which consists of man’s freedom to transcend the world and the limitations of the world (De Beauvoir 56). Antonius, however, cannot accept this conflict so easily. In a moment of pure self-awareness, Antonius describes his hands as if he’s looking at them for the first time. He wants to experience God the same way he experiences the blood pumping through his hands.
In the end, Watanabe and Antonius are successful in the sense that they complete a meaningful act before dying, but whether or not they achieved a greater understanding of life is questionable. In Watanabe’s case, he decides to repair and refill a cesspool in a nearby park. This project had been previously neglected by every department in city hall including Watanabe’s Public Affairs department. By taking responsibility over this project, he is symbolically taking responsibility for his own life which is the only way he can ever attain meaning. He shows great determination and satisfaction upon completing the project; yet we can only assume that Watanabe achieved a sense of meaning because he doesn’t vocally reveal to the viewers whether or not he is fulfilled. Judging by the look of peacefulness that overcomes his face as he sits on the swing set in the park he built, we might feel inclined to believe that Watanabe achieved a sense of purpose.
Antonius, however, is more vocal and straightforward about his quest for meaning. During the confessional scene with Death, he tells him that he will use this extra time to perform one meaningful deed. Antonius is able to save Jof, Mia, and Mikael from Death by distracting him with their game of chess. In the end, Jof, Mia, and Mikael are the only characters who survive. In The Influence of Existentialism on Ingmar Bergman, Charles Ketcham argues that he performs an additional meaningful deed when he “administers an anesthetizing drug to the girl who is to be burned at the stake.” This deed, however, is not as notable as the first one. Neither one of these deeds, however, satisfy Antonius in the same way that Watanabe’s meaningful deed satisfies him. Antonius continues to be plagued by doubt and despair until the very end when he makes one final attempt to contact God.
Although Ikiru and The Seventh Seal may seem old and outdated, the questions they pose are still as relevant today as they were in the 1950s. Neither one of these films answers the big question regarding the meaning of life. As most existentialists would agree, it is up to each individual to discover the meaning of life on their own.
Written by Lucia Meneses