If I had to pick just one director who has enriched my life the most through his work, it would have to be Akira Kurosawa. I have not watched many of his movies. Just three, in fact. But two of them have left a profound impression. The first was Rashomon, which I saw years ago and could not stop thinking about for weeks afterward. The second is Ikiru.
This is a quiet, slow yet fascinating tale of an old man who finds out that he has cancer, and decides to spend his last days finding out what living is all about. He works as a section chief in an office where his job is to put his little seal on a stack of documents. He has been doing this for years, and has become as lifeless as those documents themselves. A young female colleague nicknames him The Mummy.
Finding out that he has cancer wakes him up from this stupor. “I can’t bring myself to die,” he says. “I don’t know what I have been doing with my life all these years.” So he withdraws his life’s savings and decides to live a little. Takes a tour of the Tokyo nightlife. Spends time with a vivacious young woman who used to work under him. Finally, he decides to do something useful at his office before his time runs out.
His department has received a request from the residents of a poor neighbourhood that a park be built over a mosquito-infested cesspool in that area. The residents have been asking for a while, but have been shunted from department to department in a vain quest. He decides to make it happen.
It is here that the movie makes an interesting structural choice. Instead of proceeding with the linear narrative, it cuts to the wake after his funeral, where his colleagues get together and discuss his life and the manner in which he suddenly transformed himself in his last days. Some colleagues believe that his accomplishment was a mere coincidence and that he did not influence any of the major decisions. Some believe that he knew of his cancer, and that it caused him to turn his life around.
After the movie ended, I wondered why Kurosawa chose to narrate this story in this manner. Why did he flash forward six months, and then have them discuss his crusade through the prism of their memories? Surely he could have generated more dramatic effect by taking a linear path?
Then I realized something: Kurosawa’s agenda was not the crusade itself. It was simply the fact that the old man had chosen to live. The significance of this decision is understood completely by nobody but himself. To his colleagues and his family, he is just an old man who went a little crazy towards the end. To the residents of the neighbourhood for whom he got the park built, he is a guardian angel. But all this is incidental, and irrelevant to how he views himself.
When the film begins, you see everyone else, including the narrator, talking to or about him. You don’t actually see him say anything: you just see him through their perceptions of him. And in the lengthy wake sequence, you again see other people examining his life. It is in the middle segment, where he wakes up, that the story focuses on him.
Many years ago, I listened to an mp3 file of Dylan Thomas reciting his own poem: Do not go gently into that good night / Old age must rave and burn at close of day / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
It is not a feeling that is easy to describe. I just remember closing my eyes, letting myself drown in those words and feeling really old. I remember finding that my eyes were wet when I opened them again.
Watching Ikiru was like that.
ps: Also read Roger Ebert’s amazing essay on the movie – this is my favourite piece of writing about film.