Ikiru or To Live

Deemed Akira Kurosawa’s best film the movie Ikiru– or To Live is a complete examination of the life and death of a government worker in Japan. The movie was inspired by the book “The Death of Ivan Illych” by Tolstoy for its existential look at the life of one man and his realization that his life was lived as it should be, instead of as he would have chosen it to be.


One of the main differences between the movie and the book that inspired it, is the missing element of the wife in the cinematic version. The protagonist’s wife dies at a young age in the movie and he is left to raise his son by himself. This, and his job working in the same environment for thirty years invites scrutiny throughout the film.

Kurosawa does an excellent job directing this work of art and has described the way he focuses on his choice of film has to be inspired by something he sees in real life. He does not like thematic cinema, instead choosing to make a movie that may have scenes in it that offer glimpses into real world experiences and perceptions.

This movie while examining the demise and death of its protagonist is one of the most life affirming movies I have ever seen. It asks us to look at our lives while we can and to find the joy inherent in each moment, instead of finding ones’ self at the end of it filled with bitterness and regret.  Watanabe comes to some moving conclusions after his brief battle with anger, sadness and confusion and makes a decision that will impact his community that will be left behind.

One of the most poignant parts of this movie is when the protagonist sings a song entitled” Gondola no Uta” reflecting his sadness over the ending of his life. Even the words bring a tear to the eye of the viewer and the choice Kurosawa makes effects the view of the scenes it is in:

life is brief.
fall in love, maidens
before the crimson bloom
fades from your lips
before the tides of passion
cool within you,
for those of you
who know no tomorrow

life is brief
fall in love, maidens
before his hands
take up his boat
before the flush of his cheeks fades
for those of you
who will never return here

life is brief
fall in love, maidens
before the boat drifts away
on the waves
before the hand resting on your shoulder
becomes frail
for those who will never
be seen here again

life is brief
fall in love, maidens
before the raven tresses begin to fade
before the flame in your hearts
flicker and die
for those to whom today
will never return


It is said that when Takashi Shimura rehearsed his singing of “Song of the Gondola,” director Akira Kurosawa told him to “sing the song as if you are a stranger in a world where nobody believes you exist.” One might agree the song hauntingly reflects that reality.

Ikiru” means “to live,” and it seems that one of the major themes of the movie is that the main character – Watanabe, who has just been diagnosed with terminal illness but his doctor will not admit it so he is stuck in an ambiguous situation. Watanabe eventually comes to an epiphany and acts altruistically for others just before he dies. We also see the people at his wake take credit for the park Wantabe creates, because everyone only thinks of themselves in this life unless they are faced with their imminent demise.

Comments from the narrator of the movie include “He is simply passing time without really living his life – in other words he is not really alive.” Also “He might as well be a corpse – in fact he has been dead for over twenty years.” The comment ” busy, busy, always busy – in fact this man does nothing at all” is reflective of the way most people in the world work without thought to any other part of their lives.

 Heidegger’s  philosophical concept of the ‘tyranny of the other’  comes to mind when watching this film. Human beings, in their struggle to live any kind of meaningful or authentic existence, are in constant conflict and battle with the will, norms, standards, conceptions, ideas, preconceptions, and expectations of the society of which they are a member. From the day we are born, we are subject to the ‘tyranny of the other.’ We are born into a particular family which is full of expectations and ideas and conceptions of how we should act and who and what we should be. We live in a society where our peers, our church, our government, employer, and the general aspects of our particular culture, all expect us to act in a certain way and to believe a certain thing. And we cannot be nonconformists or we risk being ostracized by those who make the rules and regulations and laws of our communities. We all live the lives of “Watanabes” or worker bees!

Would Watanbe just have gone along doing what he was doing until the day he died, had he not been awakened to the idea that his life was to be cut short and there was more to it than he had realized? The narrator in the movie states the sad irony that: “the nobility of this misfortune because it teaches us the truth – we only realize how beautiful life is when we chance upon death.”  Much like the men in the Tolstoy story, the mourners at the wake refuse to waste the Sake and relish the idea that there will be room opening up in their work place so as to be able to move up in life! Toya, the young girl he used to work with tells him one day that she is bored with her existence at her job and chooses to move along, as she realizes her life is valuable and she wants to be living it doing what she wants to do. This seems to be the impetus for Watanabe to make his shift in the way he finishes his life. Ironically the swing he makes is much like the swing where he sits during his last day on Earth, moving hither then yon, up and down and away from his earthly life.





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