“This isn’t even worth watching. He might as well be a corpse.” A few minutes into Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru (To Live), a disembodied narrator tells us, straight up, that the movie has broken one of screenwriting’s most basic rules: we have entered the scene too early. The story hasn’t really even started yet. Japanese film icon Takashi Shimura (Seven Samurai, Rashomon) plays ineffective bureaucrat Kanji Watanabe, stamping papers with a mechanical regularity. He has spent the last thirty years behind that desk, we’re told, working for the city government – and wasting his life.
Ikiru is the story of Watanabe’s existential crisis, brought on by a diagnosis of stomach cancer. The soft-spoken, hunched-over widower learns that he has about six months to live. Panicked, he looks back at his life leading up to this point, finding he has nothing to show for it except a standoffish relationship with his son and a framed 30-year service commendation from the city. Once an energetic young public servant, he has fully succumbed to the depressing notion that his job is to avoid responsibility: as one coworker puts it, in City Hall, “doing anything is considered radical.” In the short time he has left, can he manage to leave a lasting imprint on the world, even despite a governmental system built to frustrate earnest attempts at altruism?
Ikiru is not a particularly subtle tale, nor is it meant to be. A prolonged early sequence shows a group of women being redirected and referred back and forth around city hall as they try in vain to get something done about a festering sewage pit in their neighborhood. Even Public Affairs Section Chief Watanabe shrugs them off and sends them to a different department. It’s a stark, unambiguous indictment of a bureaucracy in which salary men exist only to pass the buck. But as with many Kurosawa works, the nuance comes in the form of filmmaking technique: precise visual storytelling (once Watanabe begins to reflect on his wasted life, the movie is filled with mirrors), unparalleled blocking (Watanabe shrinks further and further into the corner of the frame as a man terrifies him in the doctor’s office waiting room), convention-busting use of sound and music (silence as an utterly stunned Watanabe wanders out of the doctor’s office and into the street, where he’s startled back into awareness by the sudden, blaring return of the world’s ambient sounds). Shimura’s performance, too, is a thing to behold. Watanabe goes from a man woken from a dream, to a body broken by the weight of time, and eventually, to a spirit of purpose flooding that ailing body with just enough energy to complete one final task.
Watanabe, emerging from the depths of his post-diagnosis despair, first helps out Toyo (Miki Odagiri), a young woman who worked in the Public Affairs Section that Watanabe led. She needs his stamp in order to resign, lamenting the time she wasted in a pointless office job (about one year, compared with Watanabe’s thirty). Watanabe buys Toyo a new pair of stockings after noticing that hers are full of holes. It’s his first act of actual kindness in years, and he’s surprised by how much it means to her.
Toyo (who can be seen as a sort of proto-manic pixie dream girl, though the film actually does better by her and their relationship than that would suggest) spends a day with Watanabe, who feeds off of her youthful energy. His condition continues to worsen, and he desperately clings to anything that can make him feel alive. But when Toyo, now busy with work at her new job in a factory making toy bunnies, no longer has time for Watanabe, she leaves him with one final piece of advice: “Why don’t you try making something too?”
Watanabe has his revelation: just as work was the cause of his despair, it could be the method of his salvation. He is literally a man reborn, as a group of friends sing “Happy Birthday” nearby while he rushes out of the restaurant. He remembers the desperate, ignored women from the film’s beginning and finds their application among the mountains of papers on his desk. He grabs his hat and coat and strides out of the office, possessed with purpose.
Ikiru’s most radical choice (and a major plot point in my own film-obsession origin story) is the very next cut: to an image of Watanabe on his memorial shrine. It’s months later, and our hero has succumbed to his stomach cancer. The film’s final 45 minutes take place at Watanabe’s wake, with all of his family members and co-workers in attendance. While we still get flashbacks to the final months of Watanabe’s struggle to build a park in the place of the mosquito-ridden sewage pit, the film mostly turns into a frank (and increasingly drunken) conversation about the man’s life and legacy.
The time jump was reportedly the invention of co-writer Hideo Oguni. This film was Oguni and Kurosawa’s first collaboration of many, as the two would work together on nearly all of Kurosawa’s subsequent films (the third co-writer of Ikiru was Shinobu Hashimoto, another longtime Kurosawa writer, who passed away at the age of 100 just last month). Rather than simply having Watanabe accomplish his task and die happily as “The End” appears, Oguni suggested having Watanabe die in the middle of the film, so that the final act could be an almost-meta examination of the impact of a human life. In doing so, he fundamentally altered my thought process about storytelling: where should a film really end? Are you serving the character, or the story, or both?
We learn that Watanabe’s park was completed just before he died, and that it was such a success that nearly every member of the local bureaucracy jumped to claim credit for themselves. Particularly galling is the highest ranking man in attendance at the wake, the Deputy Mayor (one of Watanabe’s obstacles in his fight to get the park approved). The press approach him and accuse him of using the park’s opening to make a campaign speech – in which he didn’t mention Watanabe’s name once. He laughs them off and continues to belittle Watanabe’s hard work (in front of his family, at his own wake).
One of Ikiru’s harshest lessons is this: there is absolutely no guarantee of reward for good work. And furthermore, no guarantee of punishment for stealing someone else’s good work. It’s easy to see how many filmmakers would include some indication that the Deputy Mayor’s dishonesty will cost him in the end, but Kurosawa gives the viewer no such satisfaction. It’s a sentiment shared by most of Kurosawa’s present-day dramas, in which cutthroat businessmen lacking in morality end up on top.
But where Kurosawa does not let the liars and cheaters off the hook is in their own hearts and minds. In a movie full of affecting scenes, the most emotional for me occurs when the women whose neighborhood Watanabe transformed arrive at the wake. Only moments after the Deputy Mayor trashes the press for daring to call him out, the women enter, proceed to Watanabe’s memorial at the front of the room, and begin to sob uncontrollably. Here is where Kurosawa’s editorial razor is at its sharpest: we cut to individual close-ups of the Mayor and each of his sniveling yes-men while they squirm uncomfortably to the sound of genuine mourning. Everyone in the room knows the truth about who built the park.
Once the Deputy Mayor leaves the wake, the discussion becomes more animated, as Watanabe’s one-time subordinates knock back ceremonial sake. They claim that the park’s building was just a coincidence of circumstances. But a certain phenomenon possesses these paper-shufflers: they can’t seem to actually convince themselves of their own lie. Every time some conclusion is reached that fits their bureaucratic worldview (a particular city councilman happened to be up for reelection, etc.), someone remembers a moment during Watanabe’s final months when his dedication to the park was undeniable.
We see flashbacks of the hard, thankless work that Watanabe performed in order to get the park built: groveling to the Parks Department Chief, insisting beyond protocol to the Deputy Mayor, even brushing off the threats of a group of local mobsters who wanted the land for themselves. It’s grueling work that takes a toll on Watanabe’s cancer-ridden body. When Watanabe’s direct subordinate Ono (Kamatari Fujiwara), the Public Affairs Sub-Section Chief, becomes frustrated by the constant denials they have been receiving, he asks his stoic boss, “Doesn’t it make you furious?” Watanabe’s response is one of Kurosawa’s most-quoted lines: “I can’t afford to hate people. I haven’t got that kind of time.”
At the end of the night, the drunken mourners ultimately agree that not only does Watanabe deserve credit for the park, but that they’ll all follow in his inspiring, paradigm-shifting footsteps, yelling things like “We can’t let his death be in vain,” “I’ll be like a man reborn,” and “Never forget this feeling!” The notable exception to the chorus of platitudes is a man named Kimura (Shinichi Himori), who served as Watanabe’s staunchest defender throughout the wake.
The following day, everyone is back at work, and a request comes in to the desk of the newly promoted Ono. With a flippant thoughtlessness that is truly infuriating to watch, he sends the person away for a different department to deal with. Kimura stands bolt upright, knocking his chair over with a righteous indignation. He doesn’t speak, but his expression says it all: did last night mean nothing? Are we really going to just forget Watanabe’s lesson and legacy? The answer, implicit in everyone’s guilt-ridden, shifting eyes, is yes. Kimura sits back down at his desk, swallowed by the stacks of papers.
The film’s ending, however, allows the viewer a small note of optimism. Kimura stands on the bridge that overlooks the new park, the same bridge where, earlier in the film, Watanabe paused briefly to appreciate a sunset, before hurrying off to continue his work. Kimura reflects on the tangible, positive impact that Watanabe had on this community. A child, called by his mother, jumps off of the very swing in which Watanabe peacefully died on that snowy night. The public servant heads off, changed by Watanabe’s selflessness.
Ikiru’s final lesson is that good work is worthwhile, no matter how small the contribution. The effect of Watanabe’s whole career could be reduced to one new park and one inspired co-worker. But for the community he helped, it made a world of difference, and we’re led to believe that Kimura will follow in Watanabe’s footsteps, a hint at the exponential nature of kindness.
Much like Watanabe, Ikiru left behind a cinematic legacy all its own. Today, it’s less well known than some of Kurosawa’s other titles (Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo). But while The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars are direct Western remakes of Kurosawa, the plot of Ikiru has often loosely inspired similar tales. Vince Gilligan has brought up Ikiru when discussing Breaking Bad, the story of a man whose life and worldview are radically changed by a cancer diagnosis. And if you set aside the cancer aspect, the first season of Parks and Recreation is almost exactly the plot of Ikiru: mid-level city worker fights tooth and nail to build a park on the site of a dangerous local eyesore, jumping through an obstacle course of apathy and red tape.
There is one recent film, however that may be our best modern Ikiru analog. Bear with me here: 2016’s franchise reboot Shin Godzilla. The first new Japanese Godzilla film in twelve years, it was written and directed by the inimitable creator of Neon Genesis Evangelion, Hideaki Anno (kaiju eiga vet Shinji Higuchi gets a co-directing credit as well). Anno’s take on Godzilla borrows a great deal from his own Evangelion series, but he mostly uses the opportunity to ask this question: faced with the existential threat of an unkillable destructive force, how would the Japanese governmental bureaucracy respond?
If you’ve seen Shin Godzilla, you know, but if you haven’t, trust me: it’s no exaggeration to say this film is about 75% jurisdictional conflicts, official government titles, meeting adjournments, Japanese professional decorum, and hypothetical extrapolations based on the foundational concept of seniority. And it’s compelling as hell.
Ikiru and Shin Godzilla are both films about how effective work can be within the constraints of a labyrinthine bureaucratic system. Both come to the conclusion that for good work to be done, the rules (both written and unwritten) have to be cast aside. Shin Godzilla’s protagonist is Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa), an ambitious bureaucrat who is passionate about saving lives and laser-focused on finding solutions to problems.
At a cabinet meeting shortly after Godzilla’s first appearance in Tokyo Bay, Yaguchi insists that what they’re looking at is a large marine creature, while other ministers vaguely claim that it could simply be a hydrothermal vent or new volcanic development. Yaguchi’s outlandish suggestion is scolded by the Prime Minister himself: “This is a ministerial meeting. Minutes are kept. Don’t make a mockery of it!” Cut straight to a shot of Godzilla’s enormous tail bursting out of the water.
Yaguchi’s knack for being ahead of the game gets him appointed the leader of a new committee: the Unidentified Creature Response Special Task Force. Anno’s running gag in Shin Godzilla is the near constant use of superimposed titles: names of characters, their official titles, what committee they’re a part of, where this meeting is being held. Eventually, the titles get so long that they literally cover the entire screen. Our hero begins the film as Rando Yaguchi, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary. By the film’s final act, he is Rando Yaguchi, Cabinet Minister of State for Special Missions, Giant Unidentified Creature Unified Response Task Force HQ Bureau Chief & Deputy Director.
But despite the length of his title, his philosophy for the new committee is simple: “We’ll operate as a flat organization. Forget about titles and seniority. Speak freely here.” Fumiya Mori (Kanji Tsuda) steps up and says, over a very Anno-esque sequence of character close-ups: “We’re a crack team of lone wolves, nerds, troublemakers, outcasts, academic heretics and general pains-in-the-bureaucracy. So do your thing.”
Clearly, both Ikiru and Shin Godzilla are very direct about their disdain for the machinations of bureaucracy. And if Ikiru occasionally feels like its lesson is hitting you over the head with a hammer, Shin Godzilla uses a five-ton wrecking ball. “So much red tape. Every action requires a meeting,” complains one worker. Yaguchi’s subordinate Shimura praises the good work the committee is doing: “I see everyone voluntarily doing what they can, not going home to rest, even when urged… or returning early the next day with hot meals for everyone. It’s very inspiring.” Someone chimes in: “None of that jurisdictional infighting among ministries. Just people working together.” Yaguchi, looking steely, says: “There’s hope for this country yet.”
A noteworthy difference in the philosophies of these movies, though, is how they treat the concept of workplace ambition. In Ikiru, Watanabe’s subordinates spend much of the movie whispering selfishly about who might ascend to the rank of Public Affairs Section Chief if he were to retire or die. Their ladder-climbing aspirations are treated with disdain. But in Shin Godzilla, Yaguchi is a nakedly ambitious political climber with his sights set on being the Prime Minister. We learn that he is the son of an important politician, and that he has used this influence to bolster his career. At one point, Yaguchi guesses he might be Prime Minister in ten years, if “Japan is still around.”
Yaguchi’s political ambition is never really treated as a negative. He is frequently referred to as “the political type,” and at one point he is compared to his American counterpart, Kayoko Ann Patterson, who is described as “a mixture of talent, pedigree, and coattails.” But when it comes to Yaguchi’s motivations, he is nothing but extremely passionate about helping Japanese citizens, and he insists on being at the front line to lead the mission his team has come up with in the film’s final sequence. He gives a speech to the coalition of military and private sector volunteers who make up the mission force: “I cannot promise that all will be safe. But your work will matter!”
Of course, we can hardly ignore the gigantic, mutated dinosaur in the room: both Ikiru and Shin Godzilla exhibit qualities unique to Japan’s cinematic history and culture. All of Kurosawa’s modern-set masterpieces, including Ikiru, Stray Dog, and High and Low, are deeply informed by the professional and social realities of postwar Japan. “Postwar extends forever,” laments Yaguchi in Shin Godzilla, when the United States declare their intent to nuke Tokyo in order to ensure the eradication of a threat that has a “13% chance” of landing on the US’s west coast. Various manifestations of Japanese social formality are forefront in both films as well. Let’s take the basic bow, for instance: there’s particular venom in a shot from Ikiru of the Deputy Mayor (who has been blatantly taking credit for Watanabe’s hard work) bowing deeply with fake grief before Watanabe’s family as he departs the wake. On the other hand, Yaguchi lingers at the site of Godzilla’s devastation, giving a deep and earnest bow before departing.
Beyond just sharing thematic DNA and a country of origin, there’s a behind-the-scenes history that connects this big screen odd couple. Ikiru was released in 1952, two years before Godzilla’s first ever appearance in the haunting bomb parable Gojira. That film, which kicked off an international phenomenon that persists to this day, starred Watanabe himself, Takashi Shimura, as the serious paleontologist Dr. Yamane. And it was directed by Kurosawa’s Toho coworker and partner in crime, Ishiro Honda. Honda had served as an invaluable assistant director on Kurosawa’s Stray Dog in 1949 before directing the original Godzilla, Rodan, and Mothra installments, cementing himself as a true legend of the monster movie genre. Honda would also remain a lifelong collaborator with his friend Kurosawa, especially on late-career Kurosawa entries Kagemusha, Ran, Dreams, and Madadayo.
Kurosawa and Anno, their films separated by sixty years, use very different circumstances to ask the same questions. When the stakes are high, what good can we accomplish within the strictures of “work” as a professional construct? Yaguchi’s task force saves Tokyo, and Watanabe’s persistence builds a small park in Kuroe. Both break from norms to go above and beyond, but in a sense, don’t they both also just fulfill their actual duties? Watanabe’s earthshaking attempt to build a park is simply a delivery on the very name of the department for which he works: Public Affairs. And doesn’t Yaguchi, as silly as it may sound, basically just create a Unified Response for the Giant Unidentified Creature? That, I think, is the most fundamental message of both films: when constrained by society, decorum, seniority, and bureaucracy, the most radical thing you can do is to do your job.