Ikiru (To Live): Kurosawa’s Seminal Film

Akira Kurosawa’s landmark film was shot in 1952, but it was shown in the West several years later.  In 1954, this humanist film won a special prize at the then nascent Berlin Film Fest.

Loosely based on (or rather inspired by) by Tolstoy‘s 1886 novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the tale concerns a bureaucrat struggling with a terminal illness, trying to find new meaning and joy in his otherwise mundane existence.

The hero is Kanji Watanabe (played by the great actor Takashi Shimura), a middle-aged man who has worked in the same monotonous bureaucratic position for decades. A widower, Kanji lives with his son and daughter-in-law, who care more about materialistic benefits (his pension and their inheritance) than his welfare.

Early on, Kanji finds out that he suffers from stomach cancer and has only six months to live. In his attempt to deal with his impending death, he plans to tell his son but changes his mind when he realizes that the latter doesn’t care.

He then tries to find escape in the pleasures of Tokyo’s nightlife, guided by an eccentric novelist whom he just met. In a nightclub, Kanji requests a song from the piano player, and sings “Gondola no Uta” with such feelings that it affects the other people there.

Turning point occurs when Kanji meets a young subordinate, Toyo, who needs his signature on her resignation. Attracted to her joyous love of life, he spends time with her. Toyo eventually becomes suspicious of his intent and grows weary of him.

Revealing his true condition, he inquires into the secret to her love of life. She claims she has found happiness in her new job making toys–it makes her feel like she is playing with all of Japan’s children.

Inspired by Toyo to find a new meaningful purpose in his own life, he realizes it is not too late for him to change. He thereuon devotes all of his time and energy to one worthy goal. Through persistent efforts, he overcomes red-tape bureaucracy, turning a shabby cesspool into a children’s playground.

The film’s last reel takes place during Watanabe’s wake, as his former co-workers try to figure out what had caused such dramatic change in his behavior; they are puzzled by his transformation from listless bureaucrat to passionate man and advocate of social change.

Through flashbacks, the drunken coworkers reconstruct episodes from Kanji’s last few months. They realize that he must have known about his terminal cancer, though his son continues to deny it, again indicating his lack of sensitivity to his father’s condition.

They vow to live their lives with the same dedication and passion as he did, but back at work, they lack the courage of their newfound conviction.

In the film’s last scenes, he sits on the swing at the park he had built, and then gazes over the playground. Finally at peace with himself, he begins singing “Gondola no Uta.”


·   Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe

·   Shinichi Himori as Kimura

·   Haruo Tanaka as Sakai

·   Minoru Chiaki as Noguchi

·   Bokuzen Hidari as Ohara

·   Miki Odagiri as Toyo Odagiri, employee

·   Kamatari Fujiwara as Sub-Section Chief Ōno

·   Nobuo Nakamura as Deputy Mayor

·   Yūnosuke Itō as Novelist