Emotional Structures in Kurosawa’s Ikiru

Sketch of scene from Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa
“Ikiru” by Kris Madden

It’s Dostoevsky Meets It’s A Wonderful Life…

Donald Richie wrote in his own essay on Ikiru that it would be a futile attempt to summarize the film better than Richard Brown has already done. Since I am in agreement with that statement, I provide it here verbatim, as an introduction to discussing Akira Kurosawa’s film Ikiru. Brown wrote:

Ikiru is a cinematic expression of modern existentialist thought. It consists of a restrained affirmation within the context of a giant negation. What it says in starkly lucid terms is that ‘life’ is meaningless when everything is said and done; at the same time one man’s life can acquire meaning when he undertakes to perform some task that to him is meaningful. What everyone else thinks about that man’s life is utterly beside the point, even ludicrous. The meaning of his life is what he commits the meaning of his life to be. There is nothing else” (Richie, 2004).

One of my favorite scenes from this film occurs nearly halfway through and just before the protagonist dies. Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) has been diagnosed with stomach cancer and given roughly six months to live. Initially, after hearing the news, he attempts to kill himself through expensive indulgences with women, drinking, and gambling. He is unsuccessful in ending his life and continues on living and sulking in his misery and sorrow wondering what it all means now that he’s about to die.

It’s serendipitous that his path to self-destruction crosses with a jubilant employee, Toyo (Miki Odagiri), who he works with. She seeks out Watanabe because she needs him to sign off on paperwork for her to start her new job. The two talk candidly about work and life and Watanabe finds joy in buying things for the girl and experiencing life’s joys vicariously through her. This ultimately leaves him just as empty as before and Toyo guards herself more as she becomes increasingly worried that Watanabe’s motives might be less-honorable than he’s admitting.

Their relationship reaches its climatic peak in this scene where Toyo has agreed to have one last dinner with Watanabe and the two sit silently across from each other; each accompanied by their own personal sadness that they wrestle with without the other.

I hope you enjoy this wonderful clip from Akira Kurosawa’s great film Ikiru:

The Birthday Scene From Ikiru

References

Iyer, Pico. “Ikiru Many Autumns Later.” The Criterion Collection. November 25, 2015. Accessed April 02, 2018. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/3810-ikiru-many-autumns-later.

Richie, Donald. “Ikiru.” The Criterion Collection. January 5, 2004. Accessed April 02, 2018. https://www.criterion.com/current/posts/307-ikiru.

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Author: Kris Madden

Kris Madden is an American professor, writer, and artist whose work has garnered press and media attention from the likes of The Independent, Lifehacker, and Boing! Boing! among others. In the past, he has written for network blogs GearLive, FlushLife and PeevishPenman. His short fiction has appeared in Astonishing Adventures and in 2010, his short memoir was a winner in the William Saroyan Writing Contest. He currently lives in Fresno, California with his wife and three kids.

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