Akira Kurosawa made Rashomon in 1950, Ikiru in 1952 and The Seven Samurai in 1954. All these films have quite a complex structure. Yet Ikiru remains a very simple film, which says nothing original: it's not what is shown, but how, that is important, as in Flaubert's story "A Simple Heart". It will be appreciated best by those who've realised they're going to die (you'll know what I mean). Watching Ozu's Tokyo Story beforehand will prepare you for the subtle style. In Ikiru five themes are interwoven:
1. Learning to accept death
At the start of the film Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) learns he has stomach cancer and has six months to live. He has retreated into his work after his wife's early death and become devoted to routine. The camera shows us several shots in closeup of Shimura's face after he speaks to his doctor, and we see the anguish in his eyes. It's not fear he shows: it's horror, horror of what his life has become. The shock of his wife's death has caused him to stop living. The shock of his own coming death makes him realise he must start to live: only then will he be ready to die. There is a contrast in the documentary style depiction of the hospital scenes and Watanabe's office compared with the closeups of Shimura, hunched up with horrified realisation or showing eyes that are black pools of despair. This is the hardest thing to do in any art form: this is simplicity, and the effect is overwhelming, the acting superb.
2. Placing value in your life
Watanabe has not much expertise in how to live. His son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) and daughter-in-law Kazue (Kyoko Seki) share his home but not much else. Watanabe cannot speak to them about his cancer. Cast out on his own resources, Watanabe tells a complete stranger (Yunosuke Ito) what he could not tell his son. He asks his burning question, how can I live? The two drunken men go and sample what they imagine is life: drinking shops, reviews, dance halls, strip clubs. This is desperate living, another way of dying. Watanabe brings the whole thing to a halt when he requests a pianist to play an old song, and sings the words, about young girls who fall in love and how they should enjoy that love for life is short. Perhaps it was a favourite of he and his wife when they first met. The melody is haunting, and is Watanabe's theme at several key points in the film. Later Watanabe sees Toyo (Miki Odagiri) one of his office colleagues. Watanabe is exhilarated by her joyous love of life, her enthusiasm, even her appetite. Perhaps she will teach him how to live. She teaches him he cannot live by proxy. Watanabe finally discovers fulfillment in doing good for others by using his position at work. Kurosawa opens out the sets progressively. We see the small rooms of Watanabe's house, then the cafe and dance hall scenes at night, then the streets and shops by day, then finally offices, streets and slums as Watanabe moves between the company of government heads of departments, yakuza trying to extort money from them, fellow bureaucrats, workmen and slum dwellers in his quest to have a children's park built. Giving meaning to your life is within everyone's scope, no matter how narrow that scope may be, and enlarges it. There is a touch of the moralist here, but we are liable to forget it as we watch Shimura, small, fragile, bowed over with pain, absolutely determined to make others respond. And they do.
3. The dangers of grief
How did Watanabe become the man he is? In his bedroom is a photo of a young, attractive woman, his wife. In a flashback sequence we see her funeral, learn she died unexpectedly when her son was only five or six years old. The beautiful has vanished. This is a theme with haunting overtones in Japanese culture. That power, greatness, beauty is transient can teach us how to live more deeply. But Watanabe has given the dead woman his love and now he cannot stop grieving. In Watanabe's bedroom the photo is next to his citation for exemplary attendance at work. In the funeral car Watanabe watches as the hearse draws further away from him: it's a distance he has tried to deny ever since.
4. The entropy inherent in large structures
Watanabe started his bureaucratic life with ambitions to reform. His idealistic report is mouldering away in a bottom drawer. But he's working in a place where the only activity is the filling out of reports, not the achieving of change. It's a kind of tomb. Here no one will accept responsibility; anything unusual, such as the request of a group of neighborhood mothers that a swamp be filled and made into a playground, is frantically passed on to another department. This is not merely satire. The government, of the country as of the local region, is behaving as Watanabe, withdrawing from living and substituting empty formalism in its place. It is no accident Watanabe is head of a department. If we want to we can ask, is it my problem too? The moralist is much more in evidence here.
5. The political response we have to others' actions
That Watanabe is not the entire subject of the film is made clear as his death occurs halfway through it. We see the Buddhist wake. The guests at the wake at first give lip service to Watanabe's virtues, then the politicians among them compete for the credit of building the park. The workers in Watanabe's department discuss who will be the next head. The group of petitioners are admitted to pay their respects. They say nothing; but they are grateful. In Japan it matters how the dead are thought of. Kurosawa shows that all the survivors, even the grief stricken, are motivated by personal considerations. He shows this to be natural and inevitable, while satirising more extreme manifestations of it. The mourners cannot give meaning to their life by praising Watanabe though; they will need to strive as hard as Watanabe had: most of them won't. There is a social dimension of our actions, as of our inactions. Kurosawa wants viewers of his film to be at that wake too, and reflect on what Watanabe's life and death meant.
Watanabe dies in his playground. He sits on a swing, and sings his song of young girls who fall in love. It is snowing. Watanabe is happy, not because of the playground, not because of the song. He has found something vital. What makes Ikiru an important film is that viewers who watch it can understand just what he has found.