Akira Kurosawa earned his reputation as the supreme director of action, chiefly within his jidaigeki samurai epics, but he also had a gift with simple, human stories, and of them none can compare to his 1952 masterpiece Ikiru. Firmly entrenched in the upper echelon of the master's films, Ikiru displays just as much camera mastery as his action films, but Kurosawa shrinks the scope down to craft a commentary on the rise of the bureaucracy in Japan and unfulfilled life.
In the very first shot of the film, Kurosawa displays an X-ray of Kenji Watanabe's stomach, revealing a large tumor. A cold, dispassionate voice tells us that Watanabe has less than a year to live, then he goes on to say that Watanabe never really lived anyway. We see him at his desk in a government office, mindlessly shuffling papers and keeping to himself. He returns to his home, where his lives with his son and daughter-in-law, yet he does not communicate with the two. The son and his wife couldn't care less; they just want to make sure they get his inheritance.
Watanabe is played by Takashi Shimura, one of the three big recurring stars in Kurosawa's pictures. Of the three, Shimura is surely the one with the most range, and he puts forward a hell of a performance. Shimura walks through the film hunched over, as if to withdraw from the world. He slacks his jaw a bit to make his face look utterly blank and unnoticeable, yet he stands out all the more for his ability to completely blend in. Compare this sullen, weak man to Shimura's next role for the director, the wise Kambei in Seven Samurai; they're so radically different it's hard to think the same man could go to such extremes.
After experiencing stomach pains, Watanabe goes to the clinic to get checked out. As he waits, another patient strikes up a conversation, and mentions a friend of his who died of stomach cancer. He goes on to describe every symptom that Watanabe experiences, and tells our protagonist that the doctors will tell a person with cancer that they just have an ulcer. "If they say you can eat anything you want, you've got less than a year." Watanabe hears his name, enters for tests, and waits some more. The doctor returns, and tells him he has an ulcer. Kurosawa abruptly cuts to the coat Watanabe drops to the floor, then to his terrified, knowing face. He begs the doctors to tell him the truth, but they all smile and repeat their diagnosis. Watanabe leaves, and one of the physicians questions the wisdom of lying to their patients. "What would you say to a man who has six months to live?" fires back a colleague.
At the start the narrator told us that Watanabe never really lived, and he knows it too. He waits in his son's dark room, and when he and his wife return home they are so surprised and annoyed by it that the old man does not tell his son of his illness. Watanabe decides to have a night out just to do something for once, and runs into a writer who offers to show him a good time out on the town.; he'll be Watanabe's free Mephistopheles for the evening.
The journey though the night clubs is about as close to an action sequence as the film gets. Mephistopheles takes our dying Faust through a hell of debauchery and, though Watanabe smiles as he watches exotic dancers and guzzles sake, by the end of the evening he realizes he's gotten no pleasure out of any of it. While sitting in a club, he requests a sullen song that urges young women to find happiness while they can. This club, initially bustling with life, cows into silence as Watanabe morosely sings the words.
Eventually, Watanabe finds a purpose. He runs into a young woman from work, and her joie de vivre attracts him. But this is not a love story; he's simply awed by someone genuinely happy. When she reveals that her happiness stems from her new job making toys for the children of Japan, he suddenly gets an idea. The first half of the film closes as he runs down the stairs of the restaurant the two are in as a group of children sing "Happy Birthday" to one of their friends, signalling Watanabe's rebirth.
We then cut to Watanabe's funeral, as his colleagues wander aloud what drove him to the actions of the final few months of his life. We then cut back and forth between this scene and Watanabe's final months, and learn of his quest to clean up a park and convert it into a children's playground.
At the start of the film Kurosawa gave us a quickly edited (and highly amusing) series of shots displaying the bureaucracy's unflinching ability to shift any and all responsibility between departments until the people filing requests simply gave up. Now, Watanabe moves between each department with precision, begging his colleagues until they acquiesce in embarrassment. He succeeds through pure determination, and in the final moments we see of him, he sits in a new swing, singing the same song he crooned in the club, only now with a glimmer of hope.
Back at the funeral, his business associates drunkenly pledge to follow Watanabe's example, and to use their "powers" for good. Yet when the mothers of the children who now have a place to play enter and weep at Watanabe's shrine, the workers look uneasy. Sure enough, the next day they all go back to their desks having forgotten those vows in their sobriety. Only one man dares to stand and defy them, but soon he sinks down to his chair, and a mountain of paperwork buries him.
These final moments underline the existential message of the film: life is ultimately meaningless. We go to our jobs, marry, reproduce, then die. One man's life has no effect on the world. However, to that one man, life can have meaning if he does something that gives him fulfillment. The seemingly cynical final shot only reinforces the larger picture; it does not invalidate Watanabe's personal quest.
Though ranking masterpieces is always headache-inducing, trying to decide between this, Seven Samurai, or Rashomon is just impossible. All three broke so much ground it's hard to consider what might have been without them. Ikiru is the director's most personal films; the word itself means "to live," two words that form the basic foundation of the director's work. Kurosawa always walked a fine line between pure cynicism and hope, giving us many fundamentally good characters in a terrible world. Some characters triumph, others die, but they all realize that the world is evil and try to do something about it. In a world of rote and banality, these characters decide to actually live.