The Criterion review of Ikiru contains this nice extended quote from Richard Brown:
What it says in starkly lucid terms is that ‘life’ is meaningless when everything is said and done; at the same time one man’s life can acquire meaning when he undertakes to perform some task that to him is meaningful. What everyone else thinks about that man’s life is utterly beside the point, even ludicrous.
Oddly, the author of the review quotes a “Richard Brown” but doesn’t cite it, so The Criterion review is an excerpt from a book which I haven’t track down, so I can’t even figure out exactly which Richard Brown in the universe this might be, though I assume it’s this guy.)
I love this quote. It more or less unilaterally asserts the right of everybody to make up their own mind about what their life is about and on what criteria it may be judged.
That doesn’t mean I think it accurately explains Ikiru, however. Inasmuch as I like Ikiru, I like it because it doesn’t seem to have an easy answer to the meaning of life. And even more daring, it doesn’t even clearly grant each of us (the way that Brown does) the autonomy to declare the meaning of our own lives. Ikiru actually has a much more tortured relationship with the meaning of an individual’s life than Brown’s summary suggests.
The complications start right off at the beginning of the movie, which opens with an x-ray and a voice-over. The x-ray is of a stomach, that of our hero, a Mr. Watanabe, and on it you can make out a big black spot, the cancer that will kill him in six months.
Cut to his office, where Watanabe is going about his day normally, which is to say, functioning as a cog in a vast and ineffectual bureaucratic machine. A voice-over explains that Mr. Watanabe, unaware that he has less than a year left on his mortal contract, is “not really even alive” right now.
I don’t like glib dismissals, and this feels like one to me. It invites us to judge the workaday office dweller and the inadequacy of his life. It invites us to feel superior, in other words. It assumes that a common bureaucrat can’t decide the meaning of his own life, but needs an omniscient narrator to define it for him. I don’t care for this voice, which is just as well, because we only hear from it once or twice more.
And, in any event, Watanabe soon learns the truth of his impending death, which launches him into roughly three stages of coping. First, he tries excessive drinking and merry-making. Finding this rather unsatisfying, he befriends a young woman, and his time with her is the second stage of coping, in which he tries to understand what makes her so joyful. A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about the scene that is the climax of this second step: Watanabe, inspired by his younger lady friend, resolves to make meaning out of that dull desk job of his. The next day, he marches into his office with a sense of obvious purpose. He intends to establish a park, come hell or high water, and the movie seems to have launched into a third stage of his emotional journey.
But is it still his journey? At this point, the movie takes a sharp left turn, and jumps forward some months, all the way to Watanabe’s wake. Most of the last section of the movie is this wake, where recollections of Watanabe are used to launch flashbacks. These scenes establish Watanabe’s persistence and bravery in advocating for the park and doing anything at all needed to get it built, including awkwardly confronting superiors and staring down criminals.
This section has the feeling of Citizen Kane, since it puts Watanabe at a remove, living only in the anecdotes and memories of the people onscreen. It’s moving, even though it puts Watanabe at a distance from us, consigned to being a character in the recollections of his coworkers. (BTW, Donald Richie makes the connection to CK in that Criterion review, though through a different part of Ikiru.)
And this remove makes it feel as though Watanabe himself is not quite the focus of the film anymore, which is kind of jarring, since we were following him and his pathos so closely in the first half. It’s even more disconcerting because at first, Watanabe’s reputation is negated by his coworkers and the deputy mayor, all of whom want to reassign credit for the park away from the dead man. The movie’s narrative now feels like it’s about the dialectical process of figuring out what the man’s life was really about – a back-and-forth first valorizing then criticizing him, challenging what he believed to be the purpose of his last few months and holding it up to harsh scrutiny. It feels rather like 12 Angry Men, with consensus only forged inch by inch.
It’s a little painful watching this at first. We spent a lot of dark time with Watanabe in his life, and his crushing loneliness cast a pall over his life in the time we spent with him; that park business was supposed to redeem him. But now the deputy mayor and Watanabe’s coworkers, who have the rhetorical advantage of still being alive, are discrediting that achievement. The effect of denigrating the protagonist we’ve come to identify with in the most abject terms feels like an affront to the audience, or at least to me. As filmmaking goes, it’s a bit unnerving, and in this way quite artistically effective, not to mention intriguing as a creative choice for Akira Kurosawa, the director.
More happily, the ultimate significance of Watanabe’s late-life redemption seems to be validated by the end of the wake, when the group eventually reaches a consensus that Watanabe indeed was inspired and inspiring. The scene ends lugubriously, with a communal vow to continue the great man’s legacy of bucking the feckless system they work for. The movie now seems to be back to reaffirming the meaning that Watanabe had created for his own life, a meaning we the audience presumably wanted to embrace.
But – a big “but”! – following this wake scene, Ikiru doubles back still again on this issue of whether the final meaning of Watanabe’s existence is truly fixed and unquestionable. The last scenes of the movie take us to Watanabe’s office for a redux of the same situation that began the movie: Some citizens wander into the government office trying to accomplish something. They are told that they’re in the wrong office, and sent away; the status quo has returned, and how. Watanabe’s staunchest supporter begins to speak up, but he is cowed and sits back down, obscured by a stack of papers.
The last shot of the movie has him gazing over the park that Watanabe forced into being, which now has children playing in it. It’s a slight up note in an otherwise downer ending, and it remains unclear whether Watanabe has been affirmed or denied. He’s created a park, but others don’t seem to have learned the lesson that each day, week and year are precious.
Ultimately, yes, Ikiru is about the meaning of life, but it’s also about the process of finding that meaning, and whether we get to define it for ourselves. Most surprisingly of all, it undermines straight answers to any of these.
That would not stop me, however, from creating my own meaning. The movie’s left it open, but I can think of it as closed if I like. In this spirit, I return to the voice-over that turned me off at the beginning of the film, and reconsider it.
In Brown’s theory, at least, the film is supposed to give everyone mastery over his own meaning. It’s easy – too easy – to exclude the small-minded bureaucrat from this privilege, and it’s easy to read the movie as condemning him. But I want to jump to his defense, even if little in the movie does. At one point, when asked about all his years of futile toil at the office, Watanabe mentions that he did it for his son – which would seem to give it a meaning of some sort. And moreover, if we extend the right to grant meaning to everyone, don’t we have to include the small-minded bureaucrat whose life seems empty to us?
Armed with Brown’s assertion that the meaning of the film is that individuals can make anything of their lives that they want to, I wonder if that voice-over is actually a test of the viewer’s resolve: I think it might actually be a trap, luring us into defeating the thesis Brown puts forward. If the movie wants us to affirm each person’s right to define their own lives, who is this dumb voice telling us that the desk jockey’s life is not even a life? The only way I can avoid rejecting this asshole narrator outright — and thinking of it as a mark on the movie – is by thinking that it is actually the voice of Watanabe. That is, if we decide that the voice-over actually represents his own view (if not his literal voice), and not some holier-than-thou authorial voice, then we can accept it.
So, yeah, that’s what I’m going to do. If I cannot choose the meaning of Watanabe’s life, so be it, but at least I can choose the meaning of this movie to me.