Under the influence of Lew Saul's heroic blogging on Kurosawa, I took in Ikiru at the Film Forum yesterday. The movie's a masterpiece. The predicament of the protagonist -- a career civil servant with thirty years under his belt -- has long teased my brain. What would you do if you found out one day that you had only six months to live -- and if, unlike the convicts on death row, you're free to do as you wish, and you have the funds to bankroll your decision?
As is true of the eponymous magistrate in Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilych, a medical alarm becomes an existential crisis. In the words of a Duke Ellington song, what am I here for? Has my life been false?Kurosawa's hero is a widower, Watanabe, played perfectly by Takashi Shimura. He has been a loving if imperfect father. One of the most touching sequences in the movie is a tender montage of his son in a flashback: we see the little boy in the car going to his mother's funeral and later as a teenager playing baseball while his father watches. (The boy hits a single but gets thrown out trying to steal second base before his father can celebrate the moment.) The grown up son and his wife, stuck in their routine and blinded by self-interests, will offer no consolation to the condemned man. His death will take them by surprise: they don't know about the cancer. Watanabe is heroically reticent. In the course of the movie, he confides his death sentence to just two persons, an intoxicated writer and a high-spirited young woman, Toyo, who is quitting her job as a civil servant in Watanabe's office.
The question of what to do with your time is an urgent one. The answer is as simple as a tautology: to live, to be greedy for life. The drunken writer who says "greed is good" represents a healthy lust for life. But his hedonism does not suffice for Watanabe. Toyo, the young woman who has inspired him with her vitality, finds a new job making toy bunnies in a factory. She says that doing so she feels like she's playing with "all the babies in Japan." This is Watanabe's moment of enlightenment. He must create something. He spends the rest of his days working tirelessly to get the municipal authorities to drain a cesspool and replace it with a park. This will be his creation, his contribution. This will give his life meaning. Through single-minded determination he prevails over every obstacle put forth by the buck-passing bureaucracy.
As a character in Ikiru points out, an accident could happen to any of us at any time. Our ground time here will be brief. And so Watanabe's predicament is the same that faces us all, including his erstwhile colleagues in the department of public service. This they realize when drunk on sake at his wake. To a man they dedicate themselves to following his example. But when they return to work it takes them next to no time to revert to bureaucratic type.
I love this: Watanabe knows he has six months to live not because a doctor tells him but because another man in the waiting room has explained the code: diagnosis of a stomach ulcer that will heal of its own accord means that you are terminally ill with inoperable cancer. We feel what Watanabe feels when the impassive doctor tells him he has a stomach ulcer that will heal on its own.
As the movie ended, the man next to me said, "Everyone in Washington should see this picture." That's true; the movie is a parable for aspiring political scientists. But it's also even better than a cinematic re-statement of Rilke's most famous line: "You must change your life."