I’m sure that a lot of people reading this have read this question. “What would you like people to say about you at your wake?” Japanese master Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” (which translates as ‘To Live’) brings us to a man, Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Simura), who outwardly has lived an accomplished, (if boring) life in Japanese civil service. When a diagnosis of stomach cancer reveals that he’s only got a maximum of six months to live he’s confronted with the inadequacies of his pursuits. Has he been a neglectful father? Has he been a fearful employee knowing how to overcome the maddening inefficiencies and neglecting to fix them? Has his conservative life stopped him from an ecstasy of nihilistic pursuits? Kurosawa tells the story of Watanabe’s life as much through the reflections, perceptions and impressions of the people around him as the story focuses on Takashi Simura’s melancholic performance.
Mr. Watanabe begins the journey with an attempted escape, finding solace at the bottom of a glass. Hiding in the corner of a ‘dive’ of a bar, he overhears the toil of a self-confessed ‘second rate’ fiction writer (Yûnosuke Itô) scrounging to file his week’s work. Finding comfort in the anonymity his writer friend finds a way for him to greedily pursue every drip of life that he has left. Drinking, striptease, loose women are all choices on this buffet; however Mr Watanabe cannot help but bring the evening’s cavalier immediacy crashing back to Earth.
Mr. Watanabe finds his vibrant young female employee Toyo (Miki Odagiri) as a companion to spend time with and attempts to map out her outlook. How does she stay so remarkably positive? How does she find importance and meaning in her life? For one, she takes pride in her modest work making toys, seeing that in a detached way, she interacts with all the beautiful children of Japan. For every action that Mr. Watanabe takes to sooth that inevitable abyss, the people around him are quick to criticise and snap at his behaviour change Kiichi (Makoto Kobori), Kanji's Brother, hears that Kanji has been seen with a younger woman and begins to shout as loudly as possible to Kanji's son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) that his father’s behaviour is typical, pathetic and potentially jeopardising an inheritance on the horizon.
Ralph Bakshi’s “Fritz the Cat” (1972) features an equally unforgettable character demise, specifically the pool playing crow character. When the crow is shot, the blood is pouring from his chest, his heart beats are punctuated with the flashes of the numbered balls. When you’re watching the numbers flash, if you’ve ever played pool, you know that there’s going to be fifteen flashes before his heart beat is exhausted. Twenty years earlier Kurosawa affects the same kind of countdown. In the opening character introductions of Mr. Watanabe’s Section Chief, we watch a gaggle of Japanese women wandering the halls of the city council to attempt to affect a change. Their request is simple; they want a hazardous abandoned work site, with sanitation issues, to be transformed into a park for their children. Watching this group of women navigate the labyrinthine offices only for each stuffy and aloof bureaucrat to find an excuse that they shouldn’t be tasked with resolving the issue, we then get a sense of the landscape. Watanabe returns to work and decides that this park is a project worthy of his remaining days.
Wielding a manipulation of cinematic time better than almost any filmmaker, Kurosawa fractures “Ikiru” once again and delivers us to the character’s wake. We watch his colleagues and family squabble and hypothesise about the man’s final months. In flashbacks we watch Mr. Watanabe’s unyielding battle through wave after wave of escalation and request forwarding. It’s not the sombre affair that you’d imagine. It’s a collective confession to attempt to get to the heart of the man. It’s a voyage of discovery that’s beautiful because we feel the people in attendance become aware of his redemption. Nelson Henderson famously said “the true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.” Kurosawa bathes us in the light of a man who gets to not only plant the seed, but look out on the sapling, with contentment.