ikiru, kanji watanabe, takashi shimura

“Life is so short. Fall in love, dear maiden while your lips are still red.”

When I revealed what titles I’d be tackling for my second round of Blind Spot entries, my friend Helen suggested that IKIRU would make for a great starting point. Specifically, she said “If you’ve ever made a New Year’s resolution then you should start with IKIRU”.

She’s not wrong, but starting off with such a bummer of a film is damned near lighting the fuse on seasonal depression. So thanks Helen, but if it’s not too much trouble, could you make the nine-hour-drive north and come give me a hug now?

IKIRU is the tale of Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura). Before we meet him, we are shown an x-ray of his stomach and told that he has terminal cancer. The cancer will kill him in less than one year. While he obviously finds the news upsetting, he tells nobody about what is going on. Not his son, not his daughter-in-law, not his co-workers. He decides to start making what time he has left count that much more, and starts languishing his hard-earned and well-saved money on various forms of frivolities. When he eventually opens up to a former subordinate, he is inspired to put time, money and effort towards something lasting…something for others.

The film then jumps forward to Watanabe’s wake. It’s here that we learn that he spent his final weeks and months getting a playground built for his community. As his colleagues and family recount his hard-fought efforts, they muse about how out-of-character his final months were, and wonder aloud whether he knew he was going to die.

ikiru, kanji watanabe, takashi shimura, toyo odagiri, miki odagiri

Something you might not know about me is that I’m fascinated with death. For reasons I cannot explain, I’ve thought about mortality and legacy since I was a young teenager. Back when I studied art it inspired more than a few paintings and drawing, and since then it has been the subject of many a word I’ve jotted down on paper. Part of that fascination was the typical question of what one would do if they knew they only had a finite amount of time left on this earth.

Seeing Watanabe try to up and start living is what I believe many people’s natural response would be. I imagine most of us would do what Watanabe does first: Tap into whatever “rainy day” funds we might have and start spending it the way we’ve always wanted to spend it. Watanabe thinks small: he buys a few items, experiences some night life, indulges in wine, women, and song. However, Watanabe quickly learns is what we all might be well-served to remember.

When staring down the end of our existence, we will find little comfort in frivolities.

What’s the next step? As Watanabe exemplifies, it comes from sharing the wealth with others. We all want to believe we made an impression on people, right? Well what better way than by giving unto them without cost or condition right before we go? This is the sort of thing Watanabe tries when he buys Toyo new stockings. But even this languishing of one’s possession might not bring peace…after all, how does one know if one is rewarding those who will fully appreciate it? There remains the possibility that these actions might be as forgotten as the drinks and dances the money was spent on before.

No, what Watanabe eventually learns is how high we all have set the bar for ourselves:

To achieve the most with whatever finite time we are given, we need to completely give of ourselves…not only our treasure, but also our time and our talent…and we need to do so in a way that benefits the wider community around us.

ikiru, kanji watanabe, takashi shimuraSo as if all of that wasn’t engrossing to my morbid fascination, I was then treated to the third act where Watanabe is mourned and puzzled over. This sequence captures that moment so many of us are curious about: the events and discussions that take place at or own funeral.

The discussions amongst those gathered for Watanabe speak volumes about how dedicated he was to his goal. Here was a man disinterested in fanfare. Had he said “I’m dying, and this is what I want before I go”, he likely would have walked a road smoothed by everyone in front of him. Instead, Watanabe wanted to earn his legacy. He wanted not only to put forward the vision of something, but also to fight for it and make sure it was done right. Many of those gathered to mourn him cannot understand why he fought such an uphill battle, but to me the answer is clear. Watanabe knew how he would be regarded if he was successful, and he wanted to earn that pedestal. It wouldn’t be about immediate reward or acclimation for him – it would be about true, lasting, inspiring legacy.

Interestingly, this was what made me realize how much my friend Helen had short-sold the story of IKIRU. This wasn’t a tale of the self-satisfaction that comes with carrying through on resolutions. No, this Kurosawa film is about making a life count. It’s a sad, scary thought that we will leave this world having made little impact on it. That thought is painted all over Shimura’s face through this subtle and affecting performance. He embodies the sort of everyman we write off as unspectacular. The sort who do their work dutifully, if unremarkably. These people – and most of us are “these people” – will not leave a legacy of great philanthropy and humanitarian work. Our mark will be but a dimple on this big blue marble.

Like I said – sad and scary. If you think about it for more than five minutes, I imagine your expression would look a lot like Shimura’s in that photo up top.

ikiru, watanabe funeral

AsI wait for someone to give me a hug, I’m amused by the way IKIRU could have served as both a great opener and finale to this second lap of Blind Spots. It does indeed teach a lesson to push forward without delay – underlining that we are best served when we act on our ideas, rather than looking back on what might have been. It also has such a reflective tone to it, that it could have made for a great conclusion. After all, what better way to look back on finally experiencing all of these wonderful stories than with a film that celebrates life achievements.

In taking up this little mission of mine, I’m trying not just to check off boxes, but also to cull the boxes I think will give me the broadest appreciation of the art form and for life in general.

It’s hard to imagine a film that will do that better than IKIRU

I intend to post my entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for January…

Danielle watched REALITY BITES

Will watched ACE IN THE HOLE

Andy watched E.T. THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL

Allison watched BLUE VELVET

Jake watched THE LONG DAY CLOSES and TRASH

SDG watched SNOW WHITE AND THE SEVEN DWARVES

Steven watched CITIZEN KANE

Buckle watched SUNRISE

Andrew watched SCHINDLER’S LIST

Dan watched CODE UNKNOWN

Sean watched PLAN 9 FROM OUTER SPACE

Courtney watched SUSPIRIA

Sam watched 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY

Bob (eventually) watched THE RECKLESS MOMENT and THIS GUN FOR HIRE