IKIRU (TO LIVE) (1952)

(a “to live and leave a legacy” film review by Timothy J. Verret)

There are only a very few films that are “game changers” and even fewer that are “life changers.” Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s, IKIRU (TO LIVE), is a “life-changing” film if your heart is open to the message of what it means to truly live and truly leave a legacy.

Next to Ingmar Bergman, Kurosawa is one of my favorite directors. His films like RASHOMON and RAN portray man at his worst when greed and envy envelop the soul. With IKIRU, Kurosawa drops all the samurai stuff he’s known for and just gives us the simplest of a story with the grandest of questions about life and what it means to really live and leave a legacy. And this legacy by no means has to be something grand; it actually can arrive in the very quiet of the very soul of a man’s passion, in the very sweetness of children playing in a park which ironically is a motif for this film.

Mr. Watanabe works in a city and parks department in Japan. He has been working there 30 years, and his life has been enormously uneventful up until the point he finds out he has stomach cancer and probably only six months to live. He goes on a quest to understand what his life has meant up until that disastrous news. His life has not meant much at all….or so we think. And I really don’t want to give away that secret until I have had some time to talk the serious calling of this film to those who feel they are just not living.

Mr. Watanabe is just heartbroken and completely unprepared for the short amount of time he has left to live. And he informs us of the our very own fear, because even if we live to be 90 or even 100 and/or never get stomach cancer, this is still a very, very short time when we think of what has gone on before we got here and what will go on after we have left. This is why leaving a legacy might be the only proof that we were even here in the first place.

I feel unqualified to review this film on a cerebral level, because I think that would actually be an insult to this film. This film has nothing to do with the mind, nor should it, for it only has to do with the heart and the heart’s legacy. You see, this film begins when these concerned women approach the city and park department wanting a park in an area that is a wasteland. The officials give them the runaround, clearly not interested at all in their plight, and they use bureaucratic nonsense to thwart their dream. And it is only at the end of this film that we realize that all along, Mr. Watanabe has tirelessly and patiently pursued this park matter for these women. We as a viewer did not know this until the very end of the story, and we are as shocked as these same city and park officials of what Mr. Watanabe was doing the whole time. You see, Mr. Watanabe actually DID live and he DID live as a self-sacrifice for the many. He was like Jesus. And I know it’s probably not best to talk about Jesus in a film that makes no mention of His Name, but it’s precisely a film that doesn’t talk about Jesus but has a protagonist that acts JUST LIKE JESUS that makes this so ironic! Mr. Watanabe has left a legacy, and he dies having left that legacy, and honestly no one really dies when they leave behind a legacy. The legacy goes on long after they have faded from our memory.

I swear, the last hour of this film is so emotional that I was left in complete tears. You see, the city and park officials gather together to pay respect to Mr. Watanabe. But they actually show him no respect at first because they believe it was them that made the park possible. It is only after they have reflected (and had much Japanese sake), that they recall all the clues Mr. Watanabe left behind that proved it was him, and not them, that made the park happen. They are sitting there drinking sake and going on and on about how great they are, until those same women who petitioned for that park show up and are in tears because they know that it was Mr. Watanabe’s determination and dedication that made the park possible.

Actor Takashi Shimura as Mr. Watanabe is a revelation! I need to post a picture of him right now from this film:

This is pretty much what he looks like throughout the entire film. He looks so sad and so about to break, and we are just so sad and about to break for him. We are left with just total empathy for him, what he is going through. what he is remembering, what he is struggling to understand. And when we get to know what he has done, we are forever changed by him. When Mr. Watanabe dies, he is found in the same park he helped to build, and some believe it was suicide and some believe he froze to death, but we know he died in that park because that is where he needed to die for us to remember it was him who made it happened and it was him who has left a legacy for all.

I assumed that my top 10 all-time favorite films would stay that way for a while, but Kurosawa’s IKIRU (TO LIVE) has just shuffled them all around. It is that powerful and it is that brilliant. I will forever be changed by this film for the better. And might I just add: When this film was over, I saw myself standing on a highway and I was holding a sign that said, “STOP TORTURING GOD’S ANIMALS,” and I was trying to stop a truck carrying factory farm animals to their slaughter. The truck ran right over me, but I felt no pain whatsoever and I felt no need to have done anything differently than what I did on that highway. I’m not saying I’m going to do all this in real life, but I will say that if it comes to sacrificing my ego to serve the many, in this case animals who are abused on factory farms and anywhere on this earth, then I just might be on that highway some day to leave behind a legacy.

IKIRU (TO LIVE) should be watched by ALL, because we need to live like Mr. Watanabe. We need to live for today so we can leave a legacy for tomorrow.

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