Ikiru is Akira Kurosawa in full social commentary mode. It is the story of a civil servant who hasn’t missed a day of work in 30 years but when faced with the news that he is going to die, he realises that it was 30 years wasted.
The engaging first half of the film is spent in the company of Takashi Shimura as he deals with the prospect of death and tries to figure out exactly what it is that will make his last 6 months on Earth worthwhile. It’s a touching portrait of a man so entrenched in the mundane he has no idea what is important anymore; a kind of anti-Lester Burnham. When he finally realises what he must do, we are introduced to his funeral, where the various factions within his life bicker and relive his last weeks, in an attempt to discover what had brought about such a profound change. This rather dry and less emotionally involving section is Kurosawa’s attack on the petty bureaucracy of Japanese government, too involved with it’s own selfish ends and politics to care about ordinary people. Ikiru is a film that examines what it should be that drives us to live our lives, and compares it to what actually does. Although quite Capra-esque in it’s representation of a man suddenly fighting for what is right, the rose-tinted glasses definitely come off for the climax when Watanabe’s example is quickly forgotten in the busy hum-drum of everyday life.
That is not to say the film is downbeat though; after all, it’s down to each of us to decide which example we decide to follow.