Akira Kurosawa tends to be best remembered for his period samurai films, particularly Seven Samurai, often considered one of the best films ever made. His films set in the modern day have consequently been rather overlooked, which is a real shame. Ikiru, meaning to live, is one of his best, rivalling Seven Samurai for the top spot, and is particularly noteworthy because it was Kurosawa’s personal favourite of his films. It may not seem like it at first, but it’s an ideal film for Christmas, with a very similar overall message to It’s A Wonderful Life, but without all the cloying, treacly sentimentality which affects that particular holiday classic.
Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is a middle-aged man who has worked the same dull, bureaucratic office job his entire life: we are told by the narrator that he is simply passing time without actually living. Ikiru opens with a shot of an x-ray of his stomach and the revelation that he has terminal stomach cancer. Though Watanabe at first plunges into self-pity, he soon decides that he needs to make up for all the life he has wasted in his pointless job: he starts by going out, spending lots of money and getting drunk, but finds his true calling in campaigning for a piece of waste ground in the middle of the city to be turned into a children’s playground.
Ikiru really is a film dominated by its central performance, so it was essential that the lead actor be able to handle the weight of emotion demanded by the role. Shimura starred in 21 of Kurosawa’s films, and was, along with Toshiro Mifune, his leading man of choice, and he gives the performance of his career here. He spends much of the beginning of the film utterly broken by the news of his terminal cancer; a particularly noteworthy scene involves Watanabe calmly coming home, tidying his room, dressing for bed, winding his alarm clock, and then suddenly breaking down weeping and huddling under the covers. However, the film is not all doom and gloom, and Shimura also effortlessly conveys the love for life which Watanabe finally discovers through campaigning for the building of the playground. The shot of him on a swing, in the snow, happily singing to himself is one of the most moving moments in any of Kurosawa’s films.
Considering the subject matter, it is really admirable that Ikiru manages to avoid being sentimental, a trap which so many other films “ in particular the aforementioned It’s A Wonderful Life “ fall into. It achieves this by throwing the viewer completely off guard and revealing, about halfway through, that Watanabe has died, and we are now at his funeral. The rest of his story is presented in flashback via the memories of those attending, and it allows us to assess his life objectively rather than identifying with him, and see the good he was able to accomplish once he managed to realise how valuable, precious, and above all fleeting, life is.
While a film which opens with the announcement that the main character is dying of cancer may not seem like an ideal Christmas film, Ikiru really is a great film to watch during the holidays. Much of it is unbearably sad, but the simple, uplifting message that people can do great things if they can acknowledge and embrace the beauty of life is perfect Christmas fare.