The Ten Percent: Ikiru (1952)

Takashi Shimura in Ikiru, 1952.
Takashi Shimura in Ikiru, 1952.

“Ninety percent of everything is crud.” – Theodore Sturgeon

Hello, and welcome to another installment of The Ten Percent! Usually, this column is a space where K. Dale Koontz and I take a look at the inverse of Sturgeon’s Law; in other words, the small portion of everything which is not crud. Sturgeon was right – the vast majority of movies, writing, and stuff in general is pretty awful – but there is that slim slice of the magnificent. The Ten Percent is not limited by genre – there’s room for slapstick comedy, high-toned drama, quality animation, spectacular science fiction, and more besides – oh, look over there! You’ll find show-stopping musicals chatting with bloody horror. The Ten Percent last because they are high quality productions which demand more of their viewer than simple passive reception.

By now, regular readers of “The Ten Percent” will know that I can only go so long without talking about the legendary Japanese director and auteur Akira Kurosawa, and the time has come round again. Easily one of the five most influential directors of the 20th century, Kurosawa’s entire body of work is part of the Ten Percent, and remains one of the most achingly honest depictions of humanity of all time. Although I personally consider Akahige (Red Beard) (1965) to be the highest pinnacle of his humanist phase, 1952’s Ikiru (To Live) lives about five millimeters below it.

Ikiru stars Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe as a “30-year man,” a municipal bureaucrat who was swallowed whole by his job and the system it is a part of many years ago. His wife died young, and his job became his life, to the exclusion of everything else, including his son. Watanabe spends his days at his desk, working through a pile of paperwork, meaningless forms that nonetheless cannot proceed any further through the bureaucracy without the stamp of his seal as the Section Chief of Public Affairs. In actuality, this is all that he does; this mindless paperwork review followed by the application of his stamp is the sum total of what his life’s work is about. In fact, the entire system is seemingly designed to make sure that things are passed from one department to another and another and another ad nauseum so that nothing gets done, the status quo is never upset, and the only the minimum of what needs to get done gets done in order to allow everyone to keep his job. As the third person narrator of the first third of the film informs the viewer, Watanabe isn’t truly alive at all, nor is he likely to live before he dies.

Until he is diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. And this is where Kurosawa really gets moving. Watanabe is a good worker, a man who has always done exactly what he was supposed to. He has scrimped and saved until he has a reputation as a miser. His job has permanently estranged his son and daughter-in-law, he has no friends, and the only accomplishments for thirty years of work that he can point to are two cheaply framed certificates of achievement for his years of service to the city. That’s it – the sum total of a life. Only when he is faced with the end of his undead shuffle does Watanabe realize how empty all of that actually is. The problem is, he’s been dead so long, he doesn’t even know where or how to begin to resurrect himself. For much of the film, he can barely speak, hesitating, equivocating, and lapsing into defeated silence. Indeed, in one of the most brilliant of Kurosawa’s turns, Watanabe never tells his own story – never speaks for himself. At the beginning, the narrator tells his tale. Shortly after his diagnosis, he runs into a loquacious Beat-like novelist who takes him out for a wild night in Tokyo, and tells Watanabe’s story along the way. Finally, the last third of the movie actually occurs after his death, and reveals the last part of Watanabe’s story in a series of flashbacks told by his former colleagues as they become progressively more intoxicated at his wake.

Because, eventually, Watanabe does wake up, and in his last six months actually accomplishes something, actually manages to move the paper-clogged machine he has been a cog in for so long to move, and to build… a small neighborhood park in a crowded part of the city. He doesn’t take on the world, he doesn’t rail and rage against the machine, he doesn’t save the planet, he just refuses to take no for an answer, becomes the jammed cog that can’t be ignored, and gets a park built. At the dedication he is in the back row, and the Deputy Mayor takes all of the credit, even after his death. But that’s okay. It is enough that Watanabe himself knows that he has done something, something good for a group of people he doesn’t even know, and who won’t long remember him. Because it’s not about recognition, or reward, or gratitude, it’s about being alive, and living a life that has meaning.

And the only meaning life has is that which we give it, and meaning is the only real gift we can give ourselves.

Ikiru is a beautiful film on every level, including the spiritual. It is a true work of art, and one that you should seek out if you have never seen it, or see again if you have. Why? Because in one line, delivered by a dying character as he drives himself ruthlessly to finally give himself meaning, Kurosawa delivers the ultimate message at the very heart of his humanist view:

“I can’t afford to hate anyone. I haven’t got that kind of time.”

He dies on a swing in the snow. Singing. Joyously.

Yeah. Kurosawa. He is the Ten Percent.

Poster for Ikiru
Poster for Ikiru

Ensley F. Guffey and K. Dale Koontz are co-authors of Wanna Cook? The Complete, Unofficial Companion to Breaking Badand of the forthcoming Dreams Given Form: The Unofficial Companion to the Babylon 5 Universe (spring 2017)You can find Dale online at her blog and on Twitter as @KDaleKoontz. Ensley hangs out at and on Twitter as @EnsleyFGuffey.


One Reply to “The Ten Percent: Ikiru (1952)”

  1. We nearly fought over who got to write about Ikiru. This film – this beautiful, maddening, hopeful film!

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