Ikiru Scene Analysis Essays

Ikiru (1952 Japan 141mins)

Source: NLA/CAC Prod. Co: Toho Prod: Shojiro Motoki Dir, Ed: Akira Kurosawa Scr: Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hiseo Oguni Phot: Asakazu Nakai Art Dir: So Matsuyama Mus: Fumio Hayasaka

Cast: Takashi Shimura, Nobuo Kanko, Kyoko Seki.

Ikiru was directed by Akira Kurosawa in 1952, sandwiched between Rashomon (1950) and SevenSamurai (1954). While not as widely recognised as these two films, Ikiru is a masterpiece that revolves around a subtle but intense inner conflict.

In contrast to the samurai films, Ikiru takes place in modern Japan. It tells the story of Mr Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a senior public servant who finds out he has terminal cancer and only a short time left to live. Mr Watanabe comes to the realisation that he has become trapped in his life, and seeks to give meaning to his last few months. What differentiates this film from thousands of Hollywood telemovies on the same subject is Kurosawa’s non-linear use of time, and the utilisation of different character perspectives. The title of the film comes from the Japanese word for living.

The film consists of two distinct sections. The first section starts by showing how meaningless Mr Watanabe’s life has become, by following the misfortunes of a community group battling with government officials over a vacant block of land. Kurosawa uses his first manipulation of time in a series of shots showing the group being frustrated by the wheels of bureaucracy. Department after department shuffle the group along until they end up back where they started. The dissolves between each of these shots indicate time passing, and by the time they have gone full-circle Mr Watanabe is now out of the office and off to his fateful medical appointment. This temporal ellipse is the first of many that Kurosawa uses in the film.

Once the protagonist discovers his condition, Kurosawa further examines the futility of Mr Watanabe’s life by exploring the relationship he has with his son. This involves the past and present seamlessly dissolving between the then and now. Kurosawa not only plays with the visuals of past and present but also uses the voices of Mr Watanabe and his son Mitso from his childhood and the present. Through the use of such techniques Kurosawa shows the awkwardness of the relationship and how Mr Watanabe has misread the importance of it.

Realising work and family have both been a failure to this point, Mr Watanabe begins his quest for fulfilment that sees a chance introduction with a novelist. He gets the novelist to show him a good time and is taken through the vices of modern Japan – pinball, alcohol, strip clubs and dance halls. But trying to drown himself in a sea of after-hours humanity proves less than satisfying, so his quest continues. The next phase involves the young girl who worked in his office. She has sought him out because she needs his signature to move from her current job to a different one. The encounter leaves him in a temporary state of infatuation; not on a sexual level, but that of an older person feeding off a younger vibrant energy. He has trouble expressing it himself:

Toyo: What help am I?

Kanji: You – just to look at you makes me feel better. It warms this – this mummy’s heart of mine. And you’re so kind to me. No; that’s not it. You’re so young, so healthy. No; that’s not it either… You’re so full of life. And me… I’m jealous of that. If I could be like you for just one day before I died. I won’t be able to die unless I can do that. I want to do something. Only you can show me. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how. Maybe you don’t know either, but, please… if you can… show me how to be like you!

These scenes are extremely uncomfortable to watch as you can almost feel Mr Watanabe trying to drain the life out of his young co-worker. She misreads his sentiments as improper advances, while for Mr Watanabe the realisation that the company of a younger woman was not the answer he was seeking leads to his final enlightenment. He remembers his position and who he is: his quest for meaning must come through that. The final part of this first section gives us an inkling as to what Mr Watanabe’s activities might be in his dying days.

The second section of the film cuts to the funeral as his workmates and remaining family try to piece together his last weeks. Much of this revolves around speculation about whether or not he knew about his condition. By changing the perspective, showing these events through the eyes of his co-workers and family after his death Kurosawa has risen above cliché and sentimentality to create a genuinely moving masterpiece of the cinema.

Along with the various uses of time and perspective in the narrative, Ikiru displays all the other hallmarks that make Kurosawa such an important and influential filmmaker. The framing, shot composition and editing techniques all beautifully work together to bring out the story the most dazzling of these being the sequence reminiscing about his son. The dissolves and the matching of shots past to present are used to such effect that the audience is left feeling his pain not of imminent death but wasted life. Special mention must also go to Takashi Shimura’s beautiful performance as Mr Watanabe. Shimura and Kurosawa worked many times together, most famously in Seven Samurai where Shimura played the head samurai. As Mr Watanabe, Shimura’s mannerisms and reactions take the audience into the inner most depths and thoughts of the character. His performance lingers through the second half even though we barely see him.

Having given us an insight into Mr Watanabe’s search for meaning the audience is in a privileged position. At the funeral, the audience knows the circumstances but not the events leading up to it. The characters are in the opposite position, as they know the events leading up to the death but not Mr Watanabe’s situation. In having his colleagues figure out for themselves the circumstances of his death one can really appreciate his final deeds and the fact that he did finally break out of his existence to enjoy his remaining months. But this one fact doesn’t take away from the film’s bleak outlook on humanity, and the really sad thing is that regardless of the different time and culture it is as poignant and relevant for an audience watching it in Melbourne today. It is a deliberately slow-paced film, and enjoyably so. If you stick with it you are in for a truly great cinematic experience but also a lot of personal soul-searching. You have been warned.

Ikiru(生きる, "To Live") is a 1952 Japanese drama film directed and co-written by Akira Kurosawa and starring Takashi Shimura. The film examines the struggles of a terminally ill Tokyo bureaucrat and his final quest for meaning. The screenplay was partly inspired by Leo Tolstoy's 1886 novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

The major themes of the film include learning how to live, the inefficiency of bureaucracy, and decaying family life in Japan, which have been the subject of analysis by academics and critics. The film has received widespread critical acclaim, and in Japan won awards for Best Film at the Kinema Junpo and Mainichi Film Awards. It was remade as a television film in 2007.


Kanji Watanabe is a middle-aged man who has worked in the same monotonous bureaucratic position for thirty years. His wife is dead and his son and daughter-in-law, who live with him, seem to care mainly about Watanabe's pension and their future inheritance. At work, he sees constant bureaucratic inaction. In one case, a group of parents are seemingly endlessly referred to one department after another when they want a cesspool cleared out and replaced by a playground. After learning he has stomach cancer and less than a year to live, Watanabe attempts to come to terms with his impending death. He plans to tell his son about the cancer, but decides against it when his son does not pay attention to him. He then tries to find escape in the pleasures of Tokyo's nightlife, guided by an eccentric novelist whom he just met. In a nightclub, Watanabe requests a song from the piano player, and sings "Gondola no Uta" with great sadness. His singing greatly affects those watching him. After one night submerged in the nightlife, he realizes this is not the solution.

The following day, Watanabe encounters a young female subordinate, Toyo, who needs his signature on her resignation. He takes comfort in observing her joyous love of life and enthusiasm and tries to spend as much time as possible with her. She eventually becomes suspicious of his intentions and grows weary of him. After convincing her to join him for the last time, he opens up and asks for the secret to her love of life. She says that she does not know, but that she found happiness in her new job making toys, which makes her feel like she is playing with all the children of Japan and that he should find a purpose in his own life. Inspired by her, Watanabe realizes that it is not too late for him to do something significant. Like Toyo, he wants to make something, but is unsure what he can do within the city bureaucracy until he remembers the lobbying for a playground. He surprises everyone by returning to work after a long absence, and begins pushing for a playground despite concerns he is intruding on the jurisdiction of other departments.

Watanabe dies, and at his wake, his former co-workers gather, after the opening of the playground, and try to figure out what caused such a dramatic change in his behavior. His transformation from listless bureaucrat to passionate advocate puzzles them. As the co-workers drink, they slowly realize that Watanabe must have known he was dying, even when his son denies this, as he was unaware of his father's condition. They also hear from a witness that in the last few moments in Watanabe's life, he sat on the swing at the park he built. As the snow fell, he sang "Gondola no Uta". The bureaucrats vow to live their lives with the same dedication and passion as he did. But back at work, they lack the courage of their newfound conviction.


  • Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe (渡邊 勘治,Watanabe Kanji)
  • Shinichi Himori as Kimura (木村)
  • Haruo Tanaka as Sakai (坂井)
  • Minoru Chiaki as Noguchi (野口)
  • Miki Odagiri as Toyo Odagiri (小田切 とよ,Odagiri Toyo)
  • Bokuzen Hidari as Ohara (小原)
  • Minosuke Yamada as Subordinate Clerk Saito (齋藤)
  • Kamatari Fujiwara as Sub-Section Chief Ōno (大野)
  • Makoto Kobori as Kiichi Watanabe (渡邊 喜一,Watanabe Kiichi), Kanji's brother.
  • Nobuo Kaneko as Mitsuo Watanabe (渡邊 光男,Watanabe Mitsuo), Kanji's son.
  • Nobuo Nakamura as the Deputy Mayor.
  • Atsushi Watanabe as a patient at the hospital.
  • Isao Kimura as a medical intern.
  • Masao Shimizu as the doctor.
  • Yūnosuke Itō as the novelist.
  • Kyoko Seki as Kazue Watanabe (渡邊 一枝,Watanabe Kazue), Kanji's daughter-in-law.
  • Kumeko Urabe as Tatsu Watanabe (渡邊 たつ,Watanabe Tatsu), Kiichi's wife.
  • Noriko Honma as a housewife.
  • Seiji Miyaguchi as the Yakuza boss.
  • Daisuke Kato as a Yakuza.



Death is a major theme in the film, which leads to the protagonist Watanabe's quest to find the meaning of life.[1] Initially, Watanabe looks to nightclubs and women to live life to the fullest, but winds up singing the 1915 song "Gondola no Uta" as an expression of loss. Professor Alexander Sesonske writes that in the nightclub scene, Watanabe realizes "pleasure is not life," and that a goal gives him new happiness, with the song "Happy Birthday to You" symbolizing his rebirth.[1] Because Toyo is young, she has the best insight as to how to live, and is presented as the "unlikely savior" in Watanabe's "redemption."

Author Donald Richie wrote that the title of the film, meaning simply "to live," could signify that "existence is enough." However, Watanabe finds existence is painful, and takes this as inspiration, wanting to ensure his life has not been futile. The justification of his life, found in his park, is how Watanabe discovered how "to live."[3][4] In the end, Watanabe now sings "Gondola no Uta" with great contentment.


Ikiru is also an "indictment of Japanese bureaucracy."[1] In Japan after World War II, it was expected that the sararīman (salary man) would work predictably in accordance with an organization's rules. The scene where the mothers first visit the city office requesting a playground shows "unconcern" in the bureaucrats, who send the visitors on a "farcical runaround," before asking them for a written request, with paperwork in the film symbolizing "meaningless activity." Despite this, Watanabe uses the bureaucracy to forge his legacy, and is apparently not disturbed when the bureaucracy quickly forgets he drove the project to build the playground.

Japanese health care is also depicted as overly bureaucratic in the film, as Watanabe visits a clinic in a "poignant" scene. The doctor is portrayed as paternalistic, and Watanabe does not stand up to his authority.

Family life[edit]

Author Timothy Iles writes that, as with Yasujirō Ozu's 1953 film Tokyo Story, Ikiru may hold a negative view about the state of family life in modern Japan. Watanabe has lived with his son for years, but they have fallen out of any true relationship. His son, Mitsuo, sees Watanabe as a bother, and sees him as standing in the way of money in Watanabe's will. The children fall short of their responsibility to respect their parents.

Urbanization may be a reason for negative changes in Japanese society, although a reason for Watanabe and Mitsuo's drift is also Watanabe's preoccupation with work. Another reason is Watanabe not being with Mitsuo during a medical treatment when the boy was 10, which fits a pattern in Kurosawa's films of sons being overly harsh to their fathers.


The film marked the first collaboration between director Akira Kurosawa and screenwriter Hideo Oguni. According to Oguni, the genesis of the film was Kurosawa's desire to make a film about a man who knows he is going to die, and wants a reason to live for a short time.[13] Oguni was an experienced writer and was offered ¥500,000, while co-writer Shinobu Hashimoto was offered ¥150,000. Initially, Kurosawa told Hashimoto that a man who was set to die in 75 days had to be the theme, and that the character's career was less important, with the director saying criminal, homeless man or government minister would be acceptable.

The screenwriters consulted Leo Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and Oguni envisioned placing Watanabe's death halfway through the film.[13] Kurosawa dictated the scene where Watanabe is on the swing, and mentioned the beginning lyrics of "Gondola no Uta." Since none of the men were familiar with the song, they consulted their eldest receptionist on the rest of the lyrics and the song title.

Kurosawa renamed the draft The Life of Kanji Watanabe to Ikiru, which Hashimoto found pretentious, but Oguni supported. The screenplay was completed on 5 February 1952.


In Japan, Toho released the film on 9 October 1952. The film was also screened in the 1954 Berlin International Film Festival.[16]

In the United States, the film was shown for a short time in California in 1956, under the title Doomed.[13] It opened as Ikiru in New York City on 29 January 1960.[17] The film poster featured the stripper seen briefly in the film, rather than Watanabe.[13]


Critical reception[edit]

The film won critical approval upon its release.Bosley Crowther, writing for The New York Times, called it "a strangely fascinating and affecting film, up to a point—that being the point where it consigns its aged hero to the great beyond," which he deemed "anti-climactic." Crowther praised Shimura, saying he "measures up through his performance in this picture with the top film actors anywhere," and complimented Miki Odagiri, Nobuo Kaneko and Yunosuke Ito.[17]Variety staff called the film "a tour-de-force," by "keeping a dramatic thread throughout and avoiding the mawkish."[19]

Roger Ebert added it to his list of Great Movies in 1996, saying, "Over the years I have seen Ikiru every five years or so, and each time it has moved me, and made me think. And the older I get, the less Watanabe seems like a pathetic old man, and the more he seems like every one of us."[20] In his Great Movies review of Seven Samurai, Ebert called it Kurosawa's greatest film.[21] In 2008, Wally Hammond of Time Out praised Ikiru as "one of the triumphs of humanist cinema."[22] That year, The New Yorker's Michael Sragow described it as a "masterwork," noting Kurosawa was usually associated more with his action films.[23] The scene featuring Watanabe on the swing in the playground he built has been described as "iconic."[24][25][26]

Empire magazine ranked Ikiru ranks 459th on its 2008 list of the 500 greatest movies of all time,[27] and 44th in "The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema" in 2010.[28] Conversely, in 2016 The Daily Telegraph named it one of the 10 most overrated films.[29] The film has a 100% positive rating from critics at the review aggregator website Rotten Tomatoes, based on 32 reviews.[30]


The film competed for the Golden Bear at the 4th Berlin International Film Festival in 1954.[16]


Kurosawa believed William Shakespeare's play Macbeth could serve as a cautionary tale complementing Ikiru, thus directing his 1957 film Throne of Blood.Ikiru was remade as a Japanese television film that debuted on TV Asahi on 9 September 2007, the day after a remake of Kurosawa's High and Low. The Ikiru remake stars kabuki actor Matsumoto Kōshirō IX.[33]

In 2003, DreamWorks attempted to make a U.S. remake, which would star Tom Hanks in the lead role, and talked to Richard Price about adapting the screenplay.[34]Jim Sheridan agreed to direct the film in 2004,[35] though it has not been produced.

Anand, a 1971 IndianHindi film, was loosely inspired by Ikiru.[36]


  1. ^ abcSesonske, Alexander (19 November 1990). "Ikiru". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 19 December 2016. 
  2. ^Richie, Donald (5 January 2004). "Ikiru". The Criterion Collection. Retrieved 19 December 2016. 
  3. ^Yamada, Seiji; Maskarinec, Gregory; Greene, Gordon (2003). "Cross-Cultural Ethics and the Moral Development of Physicians: Lessons from Kurosawa's Ikiru"(PDF). Family Medicine. 35: 167–169. 
  4. ^ abcdMcGee, Scott. "Ikiru". Turner Classic Movies. Retrieved 18 December 2016. 
  5. ^ ab"PROGRAMME 1954". Berlin International Film Festival. Retrieved 18 December 2016. 
  6. ^ abCrowther, Bosley (30 January 1960). "Screen: Drama Imported From Japan:'Ikiru' Has Premiere at the Little Carnegie Shimura Stars as Petty Government Aide". The New York Times. Retrieved 18 December 2016. 
  7. ^Variety Staff (31 December 1951). "Review: 'Ikiru'". Variety. Retrieved 18 December 2016. 
  8. ^Ebert, Roger (September 29, 1996). "Ikiru :: rogerebert.com :: Great Movies". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 18 December 2016. 
  9. ^Ebert, Roger (August 19, 2001). "The Seven Samurai :: rogerebert.com :: Great Movies". Chicago Sun-Times. Retrieved 2010-01-16. 
  10. ^Hammond, Wally (15 July 2008). "Ikiru". Time Out. Retrieved 19 December 2016. 
  11. ^Sragow, Michael (4 August 2008). "Movies". The New Yorker. Retrieved 19 December 2016. 
  12. ^Sooke, Alistair (26 November 2005). "Film-makers on film: Scott Derrickson". The Daily Telegraph. Retrieved 19 December 2016. 
  13. ^Jardine, Dan (23 March 2010). "Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952)". Slant Magazine. Retrieved 19 December 2016. 
  14. ^Mayward, Joel (10 February 2016). "The Year in Liturgical Cinema: Ash Wednesday and Lent". Christianity Today. Retrieved 19 December 2016. 
  15. ^"The 500 Greatest Movies Of All Time". Empire. 3 October 2008. Retrieved 18 December 2016. 
  16. ^"The 100 Best Films Of World Cinema – 44. Ikiru". Empire. 11 June 2010. Retrieved 18 December 2016. 
  17. ^Robey, Tim (6 August 2016). "10 most overrated films of all time". The Daily Telegraph. Telegraph Media Group. Retrieved 19 December 2016. 
  18. ^"Ikiru". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 18 December 2016. 
  19. ^"Film in 1960". British Academy of Film and Television Arts. Retrieved 18 December 2016. 
  20. ^"Environmental celebrity special, celebrity comeback special, Kurosawa classic adaptation". The Japan Times. 2 September 2007. Retrieved 18 December 2016. 
  21. ^Fleming, Michael (24 March 2003). "Price right for 'Ikiru'". Variety. Retrieved 18 December 2016. 
  22. ^Fleming, Michael; LaPorte, Nicole (9 September 2004). "Irish eyes smile on DreamWorks' 'Ikiru' remake". Variety. Retrieved 18 December 2016. 
  23. ^Raghavendra, M. K. (2014). Seduced by the Familiar: Narration and Meaning in Indian Popular Cinema. Oxford University Press. p. 200. ISBN 9780199087983. 


  • Brannigan, Michael C. (2009). "Ikiru and Net-Casting in Intercultural Bioethics". Bioethics at the Movies. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press. 
  • Galbraith, Stuart IV (2008). The Toho Studios Story: A History and Complete Filmography. Lanham, Maryland, Toronto and Plymouth: The Scarecrow Press. ISBN 1461673747. 
  • Hashimoto, Shinobu (2015). Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I. Vertical, Inc. ISBN 1939130581. 
  • Iles, Timothy (2008). The Crisis of Identity in Contemporary Japanese Film: Personal, Cultural, National. Leiden: Brill. ISBN 900417138X. 
  • Lucken, Michael (2016). Imitation and Creativity in Japanese Arts: From Kishida Ryusei to Miyazaki Hayao. Columbia University Press. ISBN 023154054X. 
  • Richie, Donald (1998). The Films of Akira Kurosawa. Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of California Press. ISBN 0520220374. 
  • Thomas, Dylan (2011). "Looking for Meaning in All the Wrong Places: Ikiru (To Live)". Thinking Through Film: Doing Philosophy, Watching Movies. Wiley-Blackwell. ISBN 1444343823. 
  • Vicari, Justin (2016). Japanese Film and the Floating Mind: Cinematic Contemplations of Being. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company Publishers. ISBN 1476624968. 

External links[edit]

Wikiquote has quotations related to: Ikiru
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