Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952)
By Robert Lovett
Someone dies. Everyone decides in a burst of excitement that they will choose to put their foot down and finally live. And then they don’t. The cycle continues. It’s endless. And much more of it is within our control than we realize.
Ikiru. “To Live.”
What does it mean, exactly, to live?
Kanji Watanabe has to figure that out. It’s not pleasure; that makes us feel grimy, empty, and only temporarily satisfied. It can make us feel sadder and even bored, though we’d never even try to admit it. None of us have the guts. But he figures out just before the end, as we wish so many would figure out in fact much earlier in life…that to live is not merely to get by, nor is it to thrive on excitement. To live is to exist. For yourself. Or just because…we do.
To live is to have a purpose. To live is to pursue that purpose. To live is to know we do not have to thrive on that purpose, but it should always be there. To live is to know we cannot wait around for a purpose to come to us, to choose us. The purpose is within our grasp. We are simply too afraid to reach for it, to hold it gently, and to recognize it as our own.
When I was a child I read a comic book, cartoonish and foolish as it was, that contained the quote: “Life doesn’t give us purpose, we give life purpose.” How odd for a nine-year-old to reach such a quote countless times.
When I was sixteen, I felt I had no purpose. I weighed my options and came to the conclusion that my existence had a net negative impact on the world. That my existence was burdensome, and simply one of the millions of burdens. My only conclusion was that in order to create some sort of net positive impact, I simply had to die.
I was wrong.
We are cogs in the machine. Chugging along hopelessly, turning rusty, dying. We don’t even notice. Without considering our options, we simply accept our fate, assuming our purpose is not to live but to get by. Kanji Watanabe does not realize until he has nothing left to lose that he never actually had anything to lose in the first place because he had been a dead man walking long before he actually died, coated in snow amidst his purpose. In his last months, he realizes he rarely looks at sunsets. But he has no time. He had time once to enjoy those things. Not anymore. He must move forward. There is only so much time left to pursue his purpose…to make his life worth it in those final days. Knowing the end is nigh. Knowing there is no stopping it, no control over it. We simply do what we can with what we have.
This past year, in particular, I have found myself accustomed to photographing every moment I know I’ll miss. I have a camera with me at all times. Beautiful skylines. Ugly ones, too. Sun-kissed cushions, flowers I’ll never see again, rainy puddles, flags I could care less for both lively and dead. Capturing every moment. In NBC’s silly sitcom The Office, the goofy character Andy Bernard says something in passing but truly profound: “I wish there was a way to know you were in the good old days before you actually left them.” It took me years to realize we are always in the good old days. They never cease, even in the worst of times. To exist in every moment, past, present, and future…that makes the good old days eternal. That…is what it means To Live. Ikiru.
In years since, I have discovered my purpose, in that every day I can discover a new purpose. Existing is enough. That is the message in the cynical Ikiru, that shows all we need to know is that existing is enough, but none of us ever realize it until it’s too late. Kurosawa’s older brother killed himself at a young age. Kurosawa would later attempt suicide twenty years after the making of this film. Even he knew that preaching is easier than practicing… and we all fall for it eventually. We just have to stay on task as long as we can and remember that we can control nobody’s actions but our own. Existing is enough. Existing is enough.
Existing is enough.
We don’t need to be famous. The greatest of all time. The message in Ikiru reminds us of this, showing similarities to such stories as It’s A Wonderful Life and Tokyo Story regarding themes of ungrateful family, heartbreak, selfishness, forgetting you are enough, perhaps even more than. While It’s A Wonderful Life ends in wondrous, joyous tears on a snowy New Year’s Eve, Watanabe’s life ends quietly in a most lonely fashion. George Bailey is surrounded by friends and family who appreciated him all along. Kanji Watanabe is surrounded by no one, as people did not value him or trust him. If George Bailey’s ending is what we all dream of, Watanabe’s ending is our nightmare…but Watanabe doesn’t mind. He dies happy, assuming he might live till tomorrow, but knowing that even if he doesn’t, he has fulfilled his purpose and that is all that matters.
I feel that way now. I often hear the fears expressed in this movie, and they often cross my mind…that any of us could drop dead at any second. But right now, I have no regrets. With every step I take, every action, every thought, I fulfill my purpose of existing and pushing in the right direction. In doing so I know that I could die tomorrow and have done enough, I have done much more than enough. I will know that I have touched many lives, and even brought pain to some. I will know that my presence on this earth was noticed and valued. I will have done work, I will have taught valuable lessons, I will have made far more progress in 20 years than some make in 100…and that is far more than enough. Because I know now I have a purpose. I know now we all do. And my only wish is that every person should recognize they have a purpose too. If only they knew it lay right in front of them.