08 September 2010

20 Scripts in 30 Days: Number 3 Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa

What would you do if you had six months to live? 

A lot of lousy movies have posed that question. Ikiru (To Live), by Kurosawa, is the rare a masterpiece that answers that question unblinkingly, and without a shred of sentimentality. It never yields to easy answers or cheap theatrics.

Watanabe is a faceless bureaucrat, a conformist, frugal, punctual, and, in many ways, already dead. Then, his doctors deliver the diagnosis, wrapped in a polite lie that Watanabe sees through.

Watanabe's a kind of Everyman who works through his upcoming death in ways that would probably be close to what we ourselves would do.

First, he looks for solace in his family. But as he sits in the dark waiting to tell his son, he overhears his son and wife complaining about living with him. 

He collapses, weeping in his bed.

Then, he seeks pleasure. In late middle age and with stomach cancer, drinking and whores aren't the answer either. Watanabe develops a relationship with a young woman from his office, which, of course, is misconstrued by everyone around him. He's drawn mostly to her youth and by the bubbling  life within her, but even that can carry him only so far.

Ultimately, Watanabe finds the answer himself. And this is where the movie is both resolute and about as unromantic as can be. The answer's not in some voyage or given by a guru on a mountain top. It's . . . doing his job. He helps a citizens group establish a park and a playground. He's indefatigable. He uses all his guile and all his energy in this project. He gets it built.

And then he dies.

The deputy mayor claims all the credit. His colleagues, a few of whom were inspired by his example, all fall back into their old habits. His son never really understands what his life was about, especially the last few months when Watanabe carved out a destiny of his own. Only a few of the neighborhood women truly care.

Watanabe's life and death are presented first from an individual perspective. We see him first in the context of of his office, his normal life. Then the story hones in on Watanabe's existential struggle.

But once he makes his decision -- the choice that will give his life meaning to himself -- his story is told in flashbacks and from many perspectives. We learn how hard he worked, and how his choice was seen by the people around him. It ends in a brilliant image: Watanabe on swing, just past the maze on the playground, a perfect symbol of his search for meaning, but as specific and everyday as the child's playground itself. 

This is yet another script that would reward close study. Its use of sound, in particular, lends concreteness and density to the story.

Kurosawa's script breaks any number of "rules" laid down in screenwriting books. He starts with a narrator. He uses flashbacks. He even, gasp, indicates what a character is thinking or feeling on the inside -- not often, but here and there.

It's bleak because it does not tell a single lie. It offers no refuge -- not in romance, hedonism, sentiment, or family. 

The only reward Watanabe can claim is that of the stoic, or the hero: the work itself. An act, undertaken in despair, pursued in the face of futility, doomed to be forgotten or misunderstood. And the act, once chosen, yields meaning and freedom. I'm still chewing on the theme, and probably will until I die, in one way or another. Reading this really hit me hard on every level. It makes Bonnie & Clyde seem like a well-crafted cartoon.

Ikiru, by Akira Kurosawa


  1. Ikiru is one of my most favorite films. I would love to read the film script. Can you point me to where I can download a copy of the script? Did you read the one translated by Donald Richie?

  2. I found the script at my local academic library. It's in "Seven Samurai and other screenplays" an edition published by Faber & Faber in 1992, and, yep, it's the one translated my Mr. Richie.

    The collection also includes Throne of Blood and, well, the Seven Samurai.
    Hope this helps, and sorry for the delay in responding -- been a bit busy around here.