Ikiru and Kantian Ethics

“He just drifts through life. In fact, he’s barely alive.” -Ikiru, Intro voice over

Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film, Ikiru, chronicles Mr.Watanabe’s personal struggle to justify his life as a Tokyo City Hall bureaucrat after being diagnosed with terminal gastric cancer. The film opens with the deadly diagnosis shown on an X-ray along with the narrator’s apathetic disclosure of Watanabe’s ignorance of his cancerous condition.

Mr. Watanabe’s existence is professed in a lethargic contempt analogous to his own blank-eyed stare into the camera throughout the majority of the film. He is trapped in the institutional responsibilities of his government post while realizing that he must develop his individual code of ethics apart from his post to better his moral standing in his public position. Mr. Watanabe’s development of his own code of ethics echoes eighteenth century philosopher Emmanuel Kant’s concerns in his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, and An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? In this Kantian reading of Akira Kurosawa’s film I hope to explore the ethical worth of a good will, and the social schema of public opinion versus private opinion.

In his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals Kant develops a system of ethics based on synthetic a-priori judgements. A priori judgements are those that abstract from the details and peculiarities of a situation and require one, as a moral agent, to choose an action which would be equally acceptable for anyone to choose in that given circumstance and that respects each human being’s humanity as an end in itself as opposed to just a means. This reason-based morality is named the Categorical Imperative for its emphasis on the duty-nature of actions. This emphasis on duty is crucial to Kant’s formulation, for it is from duty that a good will is spawned. Kant describes a good will as that which is “good not because of what it effects or accomplishes, nor because of its fitness to attain some proposed end; it is good only through its willing, i.e., it is good in itself” (7). A good will must be based on a priori (before experience) reasoning devoid of emotional inclination. Watanabe develops his understanding of human beings as an end in themselves and the universality principle by being first driven through sentiment, and then rationalizing his actions in an abstract fashion.

Mr.Watanabe’s will to satisfy the country women’s demands for the city to fill in the pool of stagnant water in the middle of their neighborhood is ultimately based on the idea of duty. He first formulates this will through his emotional inclination to justify his life and draw away from his office nickname of “The Mummy,” given to him by the young office assistant who hounds him down for a stamp of approval on her termination papers. This would not fulfill Kant’s a priori principle, and would hold Watanabe in contempt of the ethical system. It is not until later in the film that we are shown the development of his will from a means to satisfy his emotional realization of his lack of action in life, to a social statement delineating the duty that public officials need to carry out to fulfill their constituents’s desires. Kurosawa directs this development in a nonlinear fashion, we learn of Watanabe’s realization of his duty through flashbacks which show his travel through numerous official buildings to carry out his proposed project of building a children’s park in the site of the stagnant water.

Click to watch the bureaucracy group of women is faced with

Watanabe motivates other city officials to act on behalf of their constituents, which fulfills the first formulation of Kant’s categorical imperative by stressing the correctness of city officials following through with the demands of the constituents which appointed them. It is reasonable, a priori, to fill in a stagnant pool of water when children are in the risk of contacting diseases from the mosquitos this water breeds. It is also reasonable for those in public office to properly use their powers to respond to needs which their constituents cannot address themselves. The city officials fail to act in the citizens’s behalf when they let red tape bureaucracy distance themselves from their duties by continually referring the exasperated group of women from office to office, and department to department. Watanabe realizes that this lack of responsibility drags down the efficiency of the city officials, and even creates contradiction between the delineation of their assigned duties to the people and their actions which waste time and energy, therefore leaving their positions void of meaning.

Door to door within government.

Watanabe also develops a humanitarian concern for his constituents wen he carries out their will. For Kant, a humanitarian concern for people is defined as acting towards people in such a manner that renders them as ends in themselves as opposed to means. This means that people, as rational agents, should be respected for their agency and never used as instruments in someone else’s (in the films case, the city’s) plans. In the beginning of the film, Watanabe is shown as another part of the city’s machine. He does not care for the women’s distress about the stagnant pool and refers them to another office. He does not respond to their reasonable natures by not listening to their concern. He rather sees them as a hinderance to his monotonous duties of stamping stacks of paper. He utilizes (as means) the women by disregarding their concerns to further his plans (ends) of keeping up a bland, and predictable, workload. Towards the end of the film we view his interactions with the women and realize that when he chooses to pick up their case he does not do so only to fulfill his plan of leaving a worthwhile statement of his thirty years of work, but that he values their opinions and works with them to develop a park fitting to their needs and wants.

In his An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? Kant addresses the idea of a public opinion and private opinion as foundational to the development of social enlightenment. Following his duty-based ethics, Kant is concerned with the distinction between one’s responsibility at one’s workplace (private opinion) and one’s responsibility in the public sphere of discourse (public opinion). Kant describes enlightenment as “mankind’s exit from its self-incurred immaturity. Immaturity [being] the inability to make use of one’s own understanding without the guidance of another” (58). Fitting into the film’s depiction of city officials, Watanabe is symbolic for this “self-incurred immaturity.” He does not reason for himself until aware of his imminent death due to his gastric cancer. He is always guided by city policies and as the chief of his section, and follows the unethical practices of the city for thirty years in hopes of climbing up the bureaucratic ladder. He solely relies on his use of private opinion, which Kant relates as the opinion that citizens must uphold in carrying out their jobs, as “that use which one makes of his reason in a certain civil post or office which is entrusted to him” (60, italics included in original text). One must obey, argues Kant, to the government’s aim for the public good, and thusly avoid truancy of one’s post as a spokesperson for the government. When Watanabe goes against implied city politics, he ventures into the use of his public opinion. He opens a discourse questioning the appropriateness of the government’s actions, and therefore finds his enlightenment by no longer depending on the government, or on his private opinion, and developing a sense of universal discourse which along with respecting the women’s concern as ends in themselves, opens up to them as citizens a means of practicing their political strength.

This film is naturally imbued with sentimentality due to the heart wrenching quality of Watanabe’s health deterioration, and his admirable act towards the unrepresented country women who mourn the loudest at his funeral at film’s ending. Through this emotional representation of mortality and civil responsibility the audience can track Mr. Watanabe’s growth into a very poignant sense of Kantian ethics.

Written by Daniella Lopez
Pathos of the Privileged
1.Halsall, P.. “What is Enlightenment?, 1784.” Modern history sourcebook: Immanuel kant. Fordham, 1997. Web. 16 Apr 2012. <http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/kant-whatis.asp&gt;. (full text)
2.Kant , Emmanuel . Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals . 3rd. Indianapolis: Hackett, 1993. Print.

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