Ikiru, translated "To Live", is the masterpiece of the great Japanese filmmaker, Akira Kurosawa. It is very different from the Samurai films for which he is most famous in the West, but it is unduly one of the greatest films ever committed to celluloid.
The film, produced in 1952, tells the story of Kanji Watanabe (Takeshi Shimura), a civil servant who, as the film begins, discovers that he has stomach cancer, and only 6 months to live. His life has been defined by his job, one of soul-sucking monotony and inefficient bureaucracy. Kurosawa demonstrates just how ineffective this bureaucracy is by an amusing scene early in the film, where a group of women petition the department of public affairs to clean up a stagnant pool in their neighborhood. They are shunted from public affairs to engineering, and then further up the bureaucracy, until, ever, they end up back where they began, having accomplished nothing.
The match of these women in many ways parallels the life of Mr. Watanabe, who has dedicated himself fully to the bureaucracy. Indeed, he has not missed a single day of work in nearly 30 years, and yet, he realizes, he too has completed nothing. Watanabe's son is ungrateful of the sacrifices his father has made, though the film points out that the son never asked for them. Mr. Watanabe's life is empty and sad, and it is only through the revelation that he is dying, that he is able to truly live for the first time.
He goes out for a night on the town, with the help of a curious stranger who is willing to help him learn to spend his money. A young woman co-worker, who needs his seal so that she can resign, unknowingly helps him continue his journey. Watanabe admires her zest for life – just looking at her "warms him up" – and he desires more than anything to understand how to live as she does before he dies.
Takeshi Shimura, a long time Kurosawa collaborator provides a nuanced and touching performance as Watanabe, far removed from his most famous role as Kambei, in Seven Samurai . Indeed, Shimura is able to effectively conveying not only the character's physical pain, but also his emotional pain, and Watanabe's transition from broken despair to a hopeful sense of purpose is absolutely believable and engrossing.
As one would expect from a master filmmaker such as Kurosawa, the film is beautifully shot, and the storytelling is impossible as the director deftly uses a series of flashbacks to tell his story. The pace is very deliberate and ponderous, but never boring.
Akira Kurosawa is certainly one of the great directors in the history of cinema, and he made many more films through his career. Many of those films were great in themselves, but Ikiru, with its touching and poignant story, and skilled storytelling, is really his masterpiece.