Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru tells us the story of an aging bureaucrat and his rekindled love for life when he finds out his end is near. In this moving story, the master director shows us how one can choose to take control of life, do as the heart says, enjoy life as it is; but so often we get busy living lives we never wanted - that living busily becomes life. Sad are such lives that find desire to live only when faced with a prospect of death!
Takashi Shimura plays Watanabe, a government employee who loses his wife and joie de vivre at a young age and gets so used to leading a dispassionately serious life that folks at work refer to him jokingly as 'a mummy'. The only thing he is good at his guarding his turf at work, which he does zealously as the Head of Public affairs department, doing nothing of significance but appearing busy all the time all the same. Life goes on mechanically till the day he gets to know of his stomach cancer.
Depression and also a desire to reclaim the enjoyment he missed in the past 30 years seize him at once. The indulgence he hasn't known ever in drinking and gambling don't diminish the emptiness he feels inside even a bit, but push him deeper into a whirl of depression. He flounders desperately for a small ray of hope, a small something that can help him out of his unbearable trauma but nothing comes from his family. When a lively young lady from work comes to meet him - seeing her honesty, openness and simple happiness at small things, he clutches her like she were the last straw of hope. And starts following her.
And just when his creepiness starts scaring the poor lady, he has a sudden realization on how he can start living again. In a wonderfully constructed scene, a group of school girls begin singing Happy birthday song just when Watanabe realizes that he can find happiness at work by doing something purposeful, something he hadn't done ever in his working life and rushes out of a restaurant - he is re-born. "Happy birthday to you, Watanabe!"
With almost an unworldly passion and dogged determination at work, he takes up the cause of a small colony that submitted a request for public park - and fights the bureaucracy around him like his life depended on it. In 5 months he achieves the impossible, bureacracy bows and the public park becomes a reality. Watanabe reclaims a piece of life he missed.
Success has plenty of parents while failure is a bastard. Watanabe dies a happy man, but doesn't get the credit for the public park he helped build. The second half of the movie, for the most part takes place in Watanabe's funeral parlour and fills us in with tidbits from his last few days and his colleagues' vacillation about the Watanabe's real motives behind his last months' work. Unwilling to give him any credit when sober, sozzled they all boisterously give him his due. Only one person in the group really believes in Watanabe's commitment. Next day, they are all back to work, get busy not working and it is business as usual. The lone Wantanabe supporter struggles with his conscience for a brief while before mountainous paperwork swallows him.
Life goes on!
Some scenes that stand out in this outstanding movie are:
1. Fellow patient at doctor's office: Watanabe's transformation from a faintly smiling, polite, passive participant in the conversation to a withdrawn and terrified patient full of premonition because of the litany of stomach cancer symptoms the fellow patient belts out, is very touching.
2. Song at the nightclub: The passion and pathos Watanabe puts into the rendering of "Life is short" song at the nightclub. Some patrons and a nearby dancer, taken aback, move away as he immerses himself into a dirgelike rendering.
3. Birthday celebration: Watanabe's figurative rebirth comes with a birthday celebration in the background. When he reaches his office and picks up a file that is to become his life for the next few months, same music plays in the background. We know Watanabe has changed, he's found a purpose in his life.
4. Goon's threat: In his dogged pursuit for the public park, Watanabe unruffles the feathers of a powerful businessman who wants to build a restaurant at the same site. One of his cronies, finds Watanabe at deputy mayor's office walks up to him and threatens him to back away if he values his life. The look he gets in return is the one he doesn't expect - and he involuntarily steps back. Wonderful scene!
5. Final respects: When the colony residents walk in to pay their final respects to Watanabe, the deputy mayor and other officials are still in the funeral parlor, I expected them to burst out with indignation at the injustice meted out to their crusader. But they cry their hearts out, light the incense sticks and walk out sobbing. A touching scene.
I am sure I'll find many more scenes to love in my repeat viewings.