By Corey Birkhofer
Ikiru, Japan, 1952
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
What does one do upon learning they have just a few months left to live? Akira Kurosawa gives an answer to this question in his film Ikiru. Telling the simple story of a Japanese city official, Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), and his efforts to see that a park is built in a waste-ridden empty lot, we the viewer are given an insight into the final task of a man living with terminal gastric cancer. Setting the pace of the film to slowly recount the struggles of seeing this final task through, Kurosawa ultimately conveys through Kanji the beauty of life, as well as the urgency that inevitable death instills in us all. It is because of this limited amount of time that terminal cancer allows one to live that a psychoanalytic focus on Ikiru seems almost natural to me. With an analysis looking toward death and the psychological ramifications it imposes on not only Kanji, but the rest of the characters as well, the question of why he is so driven to build the park before his death becomes that much more profound. When analyzing Ikiru under a psychoanalytic lens, the most logical aspect to focus on is not only death, but the influence it has on a person throughout their entire life. In the case of Kanji Watanabe, a man who is so engrossed in his work that he has lost touch with reality as a result, death and its inevitable influence are nothing more than some mythical, far-off event that he doesn’t have to worry about.
In other words, Kanji has repressed any fear he has about his own mortality, using his job as a defense mechanism to insulate himself from the fear death instills. Upon seeing a brief flashback to the time right after Kanji’s wife has died, the viewer is led to believe this even further. With his wife dead, Kanji justifies his workaholic tendencies as necessary in order to provide everything for his son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko). To be a selfless, compassionate father was all he wanted. If he could work extra long hours at his governmental job so Mitsuo could have everything, Kanji could feel righteous in his actions. However, very evident in the beginning of the film is the reality that his efforts have been in vain: “I became a mummy for the sake of my son, but he doesn’t appreciate me,” he admits at one point in the film. This lack of appreciation on his son’s part is then shown to the viewer in how rudely Mitsuo treats his father. Even after Kanji has learned of his terminal cancer, he feels that he is such a burden to Mitsuo and his wife that he’d much rather quietly wither away, and at first, this is what he does.
With death now staring him straight in the face, his bureaucratic position no longer acts as a shield from reality. Finally, Kanji realizes how much time he has wasted and how misspent his life has been. His wife long dead, his son apathetically ready for a juicy inheritance, and his job no longer holding its protective value, he has hit rock bottom. Seeking solace in alcohol (which he never used to drink), we next see him drowning his sorrows at a local bar. In doing this, Sigmund Freud would say that Kanji is letting his “death drive” take over. In his psychoanalytic lectures, Freud explains the death drive, or Thanatos, as an irrational urge to destroy the source of all sexual energy in the annihilation of the self. So as Kanji drinks himself into a stupor and then aimlessly wanders around the city enveloping himself in the present, he is simply acting out the self-destructive psychological influences of his Thanatos. “This expensive sake is a protest against my life up to now,” Kanji utters to his new companion, thus acknowledging the death drive. And in conjunction with this theory, for a short time Kanji’s self-destructiveness works to subdue the fear of his imminent death. However, as night turns to day and his fate is there to greet him, Kanji realizes that he can no longer sidestep reality like he did when he worked at the government office, or as he attempted to with his night on the town. Thus, his next step is to seek companionship.
It just so happens that this new companionship greets him while passing by on the street. I am speaking of none other than the vibrantly young and enthusiastic Toyo (Miki Odagiri), who worked underneath Kanji at the same governmental office. In a slight bind, Toyo needs Kanji’s stamp of approval so she can leave the government job and find new work. Kind as ever, Kanji stamps her resignation papers and thus their peculiar relationship begins. Short-lived as it is, the relationship still helps to bring Kanji to a pivotal point in his life. Fully aware of its superficiality, he is still more than happy to let himself bask in the glow of Toyo’s youth. Furthermore, despite the suspicion of his relatives, the relationship at no point becomes intimate. What Kanji’s family can’t see is that he is simply trying to recapture his long lost youth by being around someone who is so completely alive that death doesn’t even exist in her vocabulary.
Ultimately, however, this brings Kanji more pain. When he tries to finally tell his son about his cancer, Mitsuo chimes in without leaving a single opening for the tired old man. “You’ve already spent 50,000 Yen on her,” he rudely assumes. Kanji’s spirit is crushed. The whole time he was coping with his fate, his son thought of him as a perverted waster of money; money that, when his father dies, he will inherit. As for Toyo, although at first she is very accepting of Kanji’s kindness and charity, she soon becomes annoyed with him and yearns to be around people her own age. This longing can simply be summed up as Toyo’s own psychological repression of her fear of death. At last, Toyo tells Kanji, in a particularly awkward scene in a loud restaurant, that their friendship is over. Desperately, Kanji clings to the friendship; “I’d like to live like you, for just one day before I die,” he admits, but his attempts to retain the friendship are futile. Yet again he is abandoned, just like he was when he was drowning as a child and his parents were not there to help him.
So with blow after blow launched at this poor man’s spirit, one would finally think he is mentally destroyed. But instead of sending Kanji further into the depths of self-pity, and more than likely a hasty suicide, this last abandonment acts as a turning point; an epiphany. Kanji realizes that his tactics to deny the imminence of his death were futile, but even more profound is Kanji’s realization that his life isn’t over yet, so he can still do something before goes. Thus, Kanji decides what he must do. With a newfound lust for life, he accepts that his death is inescapable. He then goes through the demeaning task of trudging through paperwork and begging city officials for the building of a neighborhood park in a run-down city lot. In the end, Kanji’s actual death is almost undermined by Kurosawa. This is because, although Kanji is the main character, Kurosawa knew that the focus of the film was on his actions, not the man himself. Thus the film moves to its most pivotal location, at Kanji’s funeral service.
Through his intelligent use of montage and deep focus shots, Kurosawa makes the transition of one flashback to another feel natural and seamless. As the funeral scene progresses, the co-workers attending begin to debate over who deserves the credit for the park’s completion. For example, while the Deputy Mayor (Nobuo Nakamura) is still present, the underling bureaucrats are quick to agree when he says it’s a joke that Watanabe deserves credit for the park. The Deputy Mayor doesn’t even show the slightest bit of guilt when he makes this known to several reporters who show up outside of the funeral a bit later. He sees it so matter-of-factly that no single department or man is responsible for the building of the park, and that’s just the way it is. But when the Deputy Mayor finally leaves, and as the night wears on, the co-workers who stay behind ultimately agree that Kanji is the one who deserves all the credit for the park.
As mentioned before, Kanji’s former co-workers are trying to make sense of his actions. They can’t seem to find the answer as to why their boss changed so much in the last five months of his life. For example, Watanabe’s brother Kiichi (Makoto Kobori) blames it on a woman’s influence: “Often an old man regains his youth by keeping a mistress,” he explains to the workers. But eventually the speculation turns to the theory that Kanji knew he was going to die all along. Mitsuo can’t believe that idea because he feels his father would have said if he’d had cancer or not. He also adds that it was better that his father didn’t know he had cancer before he died because it is like being given a death sentence. At first the co-workers agree, but as the night wears on and the sake continues to flow, the workers begin to second-guess why Kanji was acting so strangely. One co-worker, Saito (Minosuke Yamada), seems to feel the most strongly about his former chief and declares, “No matter what anyone says, Watanabe built that park.” After several flashbacks, though, the workers come to the conclusion that Kanji was only acting so differently because he indeed knew his fate.
Despite this theory, and the fact that I feel it is true, the main point lies underneath the obvious. Of course Watanabe’s newfound zeal for building the park has to do with his drive to make good of his life and complete something worthwhile before he dies, but more importantly, Kanji knows he will be immortalized by his actions, in the hearts of the Kuroe-cho neighborhood women, his loved ones, and of course the generations of children to come who will enjoy the park that he built. So to me, Kanji’s desire to build the park is not only due to his drive to do something worthwhile with his life, but it is on par with anyone wishing to leave behind a lasting artifact of the life they lived. The remnant itself, however big or small, acts as a psychological comfort to the dying individual and gives them the comfort that after they die, something they did will remain, be it offspring, a memoir, a heroic act, or in this case, a new park built in what was once a run-down, polluted city lot. In an abstract way, Kanji will never be alone because of this. Kurosawa emphasized this for me in his final shot of Kanji’s ghost standing on a walkway, watching protectively over his park, “like a grandfather watching his grandchild.”
With the aforementioned examples it can now be seen why Kanji was so driven to build the park before he died. Perhaps only one contrast to these conclusions can be made. This, of course, is in regards to how Kurosawa handles the co-workers and their actions after the funeral. While at the funeral, the drunken wishes of the co-workers are openly expressed. They vow not to let Kanji’s efforts be in vain and to use their former chief as an example by which to live their own lives. But despite their drunken passion to turn over a new leaf, as the film transitions to the following scene, we can see that little has changed. The co-workers have readjusted right back into their comfortable existence of shuffling papers, and Ono (Kamatari Fujiwara) has taken up Kanji’s position as lead stamper, sending people to other sections to resolve the problems that arise. Does this mean that in fact Kanji’s actions were in vain? Why would Kurosawa do this with the characters in the film who most needed to learn the moral of living life to the fullest? I think the answer to this question resides in the way Kanji lived his life before learning of his cancer. Basically, it’s just easier to not think about death; if we can focus on what is in front of us, we can repress our fears. Although the workers know that if they strive hard enough, important city projects could materialize, they would much rather “drift through life” much like Kanji did. They will happily forget about the conclusions reached at Kanji’s funeral and thus psychologically insulate themselves from their own mortality.
If Kurosawa had not shown this sad reality of life just moving along in blissful ignorance, then the impact of Ikiru would have suffered as a result. The film’s power lies in its truthful depiction of the last days of a sad old man’s life, and the resulting impact, or lack thereof, that he made on the people who knew him best. “If Watanabe’s zeal can’t be understood, then the world is dark indeed,” says a tearful Saito at Kanji’s funeral. In my opinion, this statement couldn’t be any more true. Kurosawa masterfully manipulates his viewers to think that if they were one of the workers, they would go on and live their lives to make a difference, that they will strive to be like Kanji Watanabe. But the fact is, when the co-workers resume the status quo the very next day, they reflect this reality back onto us, the vast majority of anyone who still lives happily in blissful denial, thinking they will live forever. Even though there might be reluctance at first to move on and forget the impact of an individual’s life, eventually we will sit back down at our desks, safely behind our papers, much like Saito does in the film. This is so that we can live, so that we can cope with the pain and loss we all feel, and so that we can hold off staring death in the face for just one more day.
In conclusion, I think Carl Jung said it best in his publication on death and immortality, aptly titled, The Soul and Death. In one particularly strong passage that seems to echo what Kurosawa is saying in Ikiru, Jung wrote: “If a young man is afraid of the world, of life and the future, then everyone finds it regrettable, senseless, neurotic; he is considered a cowardly shirker. But when an aging person secretly shudders and is even mortally afraid at the thought that his reasonable expectation of life now amounts to only so and so many years, then we are painfully reminded of certain feelings within our own breast; we look away and turn the conversation to some other topic.”
Contact the Author: CoreyBirkhofer@MoviesIDidntget.com