Ecce homo! So declares a fellow patron in describing Kanji Watanabe, a dying man seeking some sort of legacy. Watanabe-san is a mumbling, staid bureaucrat in post-war Japan. His world, consisting mostly of stacks of unprocessed documents, crumbles as he receives a diagnosis of terminal cancer. What does it mean for Watanabe to live? What can he hope to be remembered by?
Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film, Ikiru, is quite different than his better known films, period dramas such as Rashomon or Yojimbo. But the story of a man’s choice to make a moral stand against injustice is a theme that runs deep in Kurosawa’s body of work. In taking such a stand, Watanabe makes a dramatic and wondrous transformation.
But even beyond this external purpose, Watanabe faces the stark emptiness that his life has become as he’s been drifting along. Seeking redemption in family and revelry fails him. But when he returns to the office and sees that stack of paperwork, he remembers the case of a local neighborhood that needs help.
Watanabe seeks a rebirth, which Kurosawa both gives and takes away through artful editing. As Watanabe’s rebirth unfolds, Kurosawa frames the change dramatically, in high angles, and with flourishes of motion. But his simplest shot, his most beautiful shot, finds Watanabe on a swing, alone at night, and singing of love. Snow falls, and Watanabe is peaceful and happy. We recall his colleagues’ struggle to understand his newfound passionate embrace of life. Finally, Kurosawa nudges us, here is the man.