Criterion film a day, day 5: Ikiru–“to live” according to Akira Kurosawa

Let’s face it. The vast maority of people are exceptionally mediocre. We will work jobs that are moderately interesting, save a moderate amount of money, and at the end of our lives, will have hopefully made a small, positive net-impact on the world. Even that, depending on your lense, is too much to expect.

Amongst the basic biological impulse, we want children because they give us meaning: We may never have saved someone’s life, or done anything to improve the lives of those who need it most, be we created life, protected it, nurtured it and hopefully put it on a path with a higher trajectory than our own. This–and it is not meant to be pandering–is no small accomplishment.

Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film, Ikiru, dabbles in two questions:

“How does one find meaning and happiness in the greatness of their own mediocrity?” and, “How does one find meaning and dignity if they know their own death is imminent?

The latter question strikes first: Watanabe, the main character, finds out he has stomach cancer, and frankly panics: He’s a middling bureaucrat with a modest salary, no ambition and a son and daughter-in-law more focused on his pension than on anything having to do with him.

He reaches out to finally live life, looking for a way to spend all his money–he finds a guide to hedonism, and spends one whole night gambling, drinking and eating. This wanton and mindless luxury, he finds, isn’t what he minds, and affords him an air of desperation, not dignity. This isn’t to say that a life devoted to hedonism is without meaning, but it’s shooting for the moon: Few people do it well and those who fail are left desperately clawing because they’ve spent so much time focusing on being carefree, they forgot to cultivate skills other how to party well and drink copiously.

The next day, a young girl from his company comes so he can sign her resignation letter: She doesn’t want to commit to a lifetime of bureaucratic misery. Watanabe attaches himself to her, trying to find that vivacious center that pushes her to live incautiously–the way he regrets not living. At first she finds a kindred spirit, but is fickle: Finally she admonishes him. She works everyday of her life, and she only seeks to find the joy in that.

Watanabe goes back to work–dedicating himself to fighting through the red tape and transforming a neighborhood eyesore into a park.

At this point, the film abruptly switches narrative styles and also seeks to answer the question of how one finds greatness in his/her own mediocrity. Watanabe has died, and the film follows the debates of his office workers as they try to decide what led him to build the park, why he transformed from indifferent bureaucrat to powerful fighter. At the end, they drunkenly make a toast to Watanabe, pledging themselves to do the same: to value their own lives and to work hard to promote meaning in their own jobs.

They don’t, and Kurosawa’s answer to how we find meaning comes in two steps: 1) Our meaning and will always be the impact we’ve had on others, even after death (when we won’t really care) and 2) By simply working hard, dedicating ourselves to something important, and actually acheiving it above all other concerns, we will be great in our own mediocrity.

It is an answer somewhat limited by cultural values, but the films examination of death and life is comforting, and at the same time, motivating. It is one of the clearer, more honest answers to how we find meaning in our average lives.


About Big Adam

A NYC doorman, a community organizer, wannabe ape, sometimes blogger, sometimes writer, always crossword puzzle incompleter, I will ride bicycles with your papa, dance Bhangra with your mama, take you on dates that cost nada.
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2 Responses to Criterion film a day, day 5: Ikiru–“to live” according to Akira Kurosawa

  1. JC says:

    Brilliantly written! Thank you. Have always love Kurosawa – especially, “Dreams.” One of the most visually stunning films ever made.

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