According to the article by a palliative nurse Bronnie Ware, the most common regret people have in the last weeks of their lives is about living lives of their own.

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

This seems to be a universal issue. And, in many ways, the issue of “a life true to yourself” is independent of society and culture. Where the role of family, community and society is more domineering, “a life true to yourself” sometimes means violation of that code. So it must be hard to search for the meaning of life outside of that context. However, even in many “modern” or “developed” countries, it is not that easy. In such societies, “free will” of individual is considered the most respected and sacredly guarded. But still, we are not fully living lives of our own. Many of us will regret for sure. “Ikiru” is about this regret. About this regret not being regretted until the time of death.


“Ikiru” is a film strangely uneven and scattered in its styles.

Though the film begins with voice-over narration, this devise, which would provide the external static point of view to the story, is soon dropped. Then we follow Kanji Watanabe through the lens fixed on him from all the directions. Up to the scene of funeral, Watanabe’s drooping figure is the most dominant on the screen. This insistent trajectory of the lens is cruel, sometimes mean or at least relentless. Then, suddenly, we lose him. The funeral scene is Rashomon-like pasticcio of the tales about the person. Each storyteller relates the episode of Watanabe, to solve the mystery of his last days. Though the audience already know Watanabe’s motivation, the storytellers are not sure and try to understand why he did what he did. These stages of perspective shifting are quite effective in exploring the various phases of regret.

Voiceover Beginning

The first image, the X-ray photograph, is a death sentence. Then, we meet him in person, as a drab city servant who had lost enthusiasm in his work a long time ago. Voice-over narration and three-minute sketch of the office give us whole picture of the man. The X-ray image sentences him to biological death; the following sequence declares him dead already. It is one of the most efficient, brilliant and economical sequence of film openings.

There are many films which open with hero(ine)’s death at the beginning. It is, in essence, quite effective to draw the audience attention to the world of the film. Forties and fifties are full of such films, “Citizen Kane”, “Sunset Boulevard”, “The Killers”, to name the few. “Ikiru” is essentially using this same device, but with a little twist. He is “dead” already and he is going to die.

Whose is that voice? God? Imaginary third person? The indifferent voice over the still image of X-ray photograph creates the effect as if we are watching the documentary film. We are conditioned to observe Watanabe as an object under microscope from critical perspective. Especially, a city servant buried under the heap of red tape is a familiar target of condescension and disgust in our daily life. The posture, delivery of speech, gaze, all of his appearance provide us with common ground for casual condemnation. And the narration itself openly insults his state of life. “He is nothing interesting.”, it says. This firmly sets the distance and relationship between us and him.

Relentless Camera

Once established, we see Watanabe’s struggle for regaining the life lost. His paths are familiar one: he tries to reinvigorate himself through the others. First, through the strangers (bohemian writer and night town dwellers), then his son and finally, a young woman. The trip through the night life of Tokyo is attempt to recuperate from still unseen shadow of death. The writer is Mephisto, trying to save the soul by injection of youth. But in the end, he realizes and we realize, it was no use. Watanabe’s singing of “The Gondola Song (1915)” symbolizes the failed attempt to rejuvenate himself. The camera focuses on Watanabe as if to X-ray his memory. The voyage into night life ends with the scene of dark alley, where Watanabe realizes you cannot cheat death.

Of all, his son and wife are the least sympathetic to Watanabe. Watanabe reminiscences the path of father-son relationship through the turbulent times. His wife’s death, raising him alone, sending him to war… these memories seem to guarantee him a caring son. But the son and his wife are rather wary of Watanabe’s presence, with little concern for his aging. Since we are only presented with Watanabe’s vision, we tend to sympathize with him. But how about his son’s view on the matter? Considering his bitter statements and insolent attitude toward his father, the whole relationship might not have been the way his father likes to remember. In one scene, Watanabe fancies that his son wants to talk to him, so he stumbles to staircase to see him. The son simply wanted to say good-night, and Watanabe’s fanciful hope is crushed. The camera ruthlessly captures him frozen in the middle of dark staircase. The family is not the last resort of your life.

Kurosawa carefully but cynically describes the relationship between Watabane and the young woman, Odagiri. It is warm but grotesque at the same time. Watanabe is a meek and a vampire simultaneously We know he wants what Odagiri has, a young blood. Not necessarily in sexual sense, but as a vampire crave for maiden’s blood, he wants it for sustaining his life. We want him to be revived, but are somewhat disgusted with his insistent approach to her. The reason is simple. We want him to live, but not through the others. From the beginning, Kurosawa builds up this idea frame by frame, through his insistent camera relentlessly capturing the expression of Watanabe’s face. Storytelling leading up to the last meeting with Odagiri in the restaurant is a brilliant example of catharsis in the making.


When you know the whole picture of a jigsaw puzzle, you should be able to place, or at least guess where each piece of the puzzle would go. But if you have only a piece and nothing else, you have very little information about the whole picture. The second half of the film, the scene of wake procession, is about these separate puzzle pieces brought together to present them (us) with the whole picture.

But these tales are like kaleidoscope of the original puzzle pieces, since they are subject to various filters and amplifiers of storytellers themselves. Kurosawa’s previous film, “Rashomon”, is a meticulous study on the subjective transmutation of the truth. The “truth” is inconclusive throughout, and we are more confronted with tragedy of irreversible nature of the transmutation. In “Ikiru”, the premise is slightly different; each storyteller tells separate event from others and emphasis is on the identical axis found in every episode, rather than difference among the stories. This approach is quite evident from the first story; Deputy Mayor’s intent is to belittle Watanabe’s effort in the children’s playground, but the flashback tells otherwise. Here, the storyteller’s subjective view fails to alter the actual event to his own liking.

In fact, this storytelling sequence is very ambiguous as to the owner of the story. To whom this flashback belongs? Is this a third-person/God’s view? Or is it possible that it is a visual image in storyteller’s mind while he tells a bit different story? In another words, is there a difference between what is told and what is remembered? In this sense, Nakamura’s rendering of the Deputy Mayor is so brilliant that it is clear he knows the gap between what he tells everybody and what he actually remembers. His facial expression, posture, and body language is laced with dim light of guilt.

The progression from Deputy Mayor’s story to others’ and the policeman’s in the end is process of narrowing this gap. From doubt through realization to affirmation of Watanabe’s intent, each character’s sympathy synchronizes with diminishing level of self-serving rhetoric. The policeman’s tale in the end is final blow. He is completely devoid of need to preserve his own face, so his story seems authentic as ever. Policeman’s image exactly matches what he tells, and what he observes. And this is the point where audience re-connects the dots all the way back to the beginning. “Gondola’s Song” brings us back to the beginning of the sojourn. It was a brooding, but rewarding soul-searching, to find how to live.

The role of family

In Japan, and probably in most of the Eastern hemisphere, it has been a very binding convention that children should look after aging parents. But postwar Japan saw the emotional fracture in this convention. Socio-economical background, such as industrialization, longevity, family clusterization contributed this fracture, but literature and arts tend to focus on shifting morale of the contemporary world.

The theme of aging and family resonates with that of “Tokyo Story”, directed by Yasujiro Ozu in the following year. You expect your kids to be more sympathetic, only to find they have outgrown you and are busy pursuing their own lives. Noriko, the widow, is the only part of the clan who cares about aging parents.

In addition, the father-son relationship in “Ikiru” has another dimension, “Après-Guerre/Avant-Guerre” contrasts. In many postwar films, Kurosawa had dealt with gap between prewar and postwar generations. First après-guerre we meet is Yuzo in “One Wonderful Sunday”. The contrast starts to appear in “Drunken Angel”, between Matsunaga (Mifune)/Sanada (Shimura), followed by Dr. Fujizaki (Mifune) and his father (Shimura) in “Quiet Duel”. This culminated in “Stray Dog”, in which we have Yusa (Kimura) – Murakami (Mifune) – Sato (Shimura) relationship. In Kurosawa’s terms, après-guerres endured tough, raw human condition, which the previous generation was not aware of. This dimension is completely non-exsistant, or at least hidden, in Ozu’s works.

In reality, Kurosawa was not a part of après-guerre generation, being 35 years old at the time of the fall of Japanese Empire. Yasujiro Ozu was 42. Then, who are après-guerre film directors, for example? Seijun Suzuki was an officer in South Pacific, and 22 years old at the end of the war. Yasuzo Masumura was age 21, Shohei Imamura 19, but neither went to war. Nagisa Oshima was 13 years old, Yoshishige Yoshida 12 years old.

Oshima and Yoshida belong to the generation of Odagiri, a young woman in “Ikiru”, while Suzuki, Masumura, and Imamura are in the same age group with Watanabe’s son. While Odagiri (Oshima-Yoshida generation) is full of energy and essentially optimistic, Watanabe’s son (Suzuki-Masumura-Imamura generation) is cynical and somewhat nihilistic, or quite pragmatic. Of course, this kind of generalization is too simplistic, but it may be helpful in understanding the roles of these characters.

Comparison with another Ozu film may be more revealing. “There Was A Father” essentially deals with the similar father-son relationship with the similar generation groups. But how they differ each other. Though Watanabe’s generation expected the intimate, caring devotion from their children as in “There Was A Father” (and probably it was natural for them), the end of the war and of the Imperial Japan slowly suffocated their expectations. As “Ikiru” suggests, the abandoning such expectation is essential in building his own life. It’s simple and obvious, but hard thing to do in reality.

Now, in many advanced nations, people live longer thanks to modern medicine. Issue of aging is more prevalent and life after the “prime” is concern for many. We all die sometime. Fear of dying is more horrifying than death itself. Why do you fear? We all wish our last moment to be like Watanabe’s.


Ikiru (生きる, 1952)

Prod. Soujiro Motoki
Dir. Akira Kurosawa
Writer Osamu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Kokuni, Cinematography  Asakazu Nakai, Music Fumio Hayasaka
Takashi Shimura, Nobuo Kaneko, Miki Odagiri

Copyrighted materials, if any, on this web page are included as “fair use”. These are used for the purpose of research, review or critical analysis, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s).


  1. Pingback: What Are They Eating? – “Ikiru” and “Street of Shame” – Enic-cinE

  2. Pingback: Harikomi (1958) – Enic-cinE

  3. Pingback: Maiden Bridge (1936) – Enic-cinE

Comments are closed.