To do Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru any real justice, I’d have to go on at length. Maybe I’ll save a longer discussion for next week. Today, I’m just going to breakdown my favorite scene, and in that way perhaps I’ll show why a movie like this deserves far more than a thousand words.
The context: Mr. Watanabe is an aging man who has recently learned he’s dying from stomach cancer. He has six months, maybe a year. He’s kept this fact largely to himself, and Toyo, the young woman he’s recently befriended, doesn’t know he’s terminal. They’ve had a chaste but warm relationship until now, but she’s beginning to feel creeped out by the attentions of this older man. She’s agreed to one last date.
Cut to the restaurant. In stark contrast to their silence, a party goes on in the background, across an open stairwell.
She sees a couple obviously in love.
The shot is just one more example of the way Kurosawa uses layers upon layers in his images, with foreground, background, and the space in between all interacting in clever ways. Here, in the very foreground, on the right, there are the happy lovers. To the left and behind them, we see Toyo ogling them enviously, and further to the left, on the same plane, the sullen Watanabe, who’s staring down at his table in a pose of manifest defeat. Then, in the very background, there’s a happening party.
In sum, the staging gives us love up front, followed up by a layer of sadness, then finally bookended by more happy — a sort of sandwich of discontent, almost crushing the twosome of Watanabe and Toyo in a vise of smiles. Has good cheer ever seemed so oppressive?
Of course, the answer is yes: It always is to the morbidly depressed and the otherwise unmoored.
We get a closer look at the party across the way. The people are all anonymous, too hard to make out as individuals, instead functioning as chatty mannequins. This innocent gathering is, for Watanabe and Toyo, like Facebook: a streaming gallery of scenes from a better life, a grand old party when great times were had by all while you were at home ordering take-out and feeling sorry for yourself.
The conversation begins, the party still going on in the background.
Before long, Watanabe is using his last chance to tell Toyo what is really going on: He’ll be dead in six months. And maybe worse, he has found in dying that he has no sense of purpose in life, no joys, and no meaning. The single take in which he confesses this spiritual bankruptcy is long and brutal, with no cutting away for a break from the morose look on his face. This was the point in the movie where I wrote in my notes, “What did playing this part do the psyche of Takashi Shimura?” Because it can’t have been easy, even to pretend.
It turns out what Watanabe needs from Toyo is not physical love (is how we prudes like to put it), nor even a good time this evening, necessarily. What he wants to know is, what makes her so alive?
But like so many people, even lively ones, she doesn’t really know. Upon realizing this, Watanabe’s last chance for joy is extinguished, and Shimura manages to transmit real hopelessness through his face:
Finally, as Toyo explains that she gets joy out of her job — assembling little toy bunnies — he begins to think. Could his dull bureaucratic existence be redeemed by a sense of purpose in his work? In an instant, he is inspired, and smiles for what seems like the first time in the film.
He rushes off, in a tracking shot that is beautiful but almost impossible to capture in a still:
Hurrying out of the restaurant, he descends the stairwell, and the partygoers assemble to watch him go. And they start singing “Happy Birthday”…to him! This is maybe too much by way of the filmmaker making his point, but it’s pretty fantastic anyway.
And then, passing him as he exits, the birthday girl is seen arriving.
I’m tempted to say something in sum, but maybe the point is that there is no good summary statement to this scene; experiencing it is its own reward.