Life Of Petty Calculations vs. An Existentially Spiritual Meaning Of Life That Grants Freedom From Death

Those who see Ikiru as a social statement have their reasons for doing so, though to see it only as statement, is to do it an injustice.
Donald Richie, “The Films of Akira Kurosawa”, Univ. of California Press, 1996, p. 95

Introduction to the film (note to the viewers)

To help the Americans and Europeans of the 21st century to appreciate the film in its full power, it is necessary, it seems, to point out the difference between Japan of the early fifties (with its extensive administrative bureaucracy created by fear of population on part of Japanese authoritarian leadership) and today’s Western post-democracies, where the role of Japanese administrative bureaucracy is played by much more aggressive corporate bureaucracy. Totalitarian countries, like USSR, Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan needed bureaucracy as a protective layer between the ruling decision-making elite and the people. Totalitarian governments are pompously populist in order to successfully recruit people into unconditional belief in the totalitarian ideology (militaristically expansive, with globalist ambitions), while today Western governments’ populism is much more innovative and tricky. One of the tasks of Japanese government was to pretend that it is there to care about people, while in reality it tried to do for people as little as possible. This is one of the main motifs of Kurosawa’s film. After WWII the general situation with the administrative bureaucracy in Japan still kept resemblance with its pre-war orientation – the bureaucratic structures existed in order to freeze and make completely impotent the potential for development of democratic tendencies in the country. Today’s Western leaders, on the other hand, proclaim and started to realize austerity for populations and keep democracy only as ideological fig leaf.

In US before 21st century, administrative bureaucracy was unconditionally dedicated to helping people who needed help. The Federal, State and local structures of public help still continue to exist even today, when neo-conservatives already reduce many programs and intend to destroy Social Security, Medicare and Medicate, public housing, etc. At the same time in US the “private sector” intensifies the development of its own bureaucracy, the task of which is to calculate more effectively corporate profits, to invent new ways of detouring and non-enforcing laws and new “high-tech” strategies of making more money and fooling the people with the propaganda of the wealthy as the heroes and benefactors of the poor. Corporate bureaucrats don’t look exactly like the administrative bureaucracy Kurosawa depicts in “Ikiru”. At this point there is a danger that the American viewers, especially the young, for whom to watch this film could be especially enlightening, may think that Kurosawa’s film is “outdated” and of no interest to them. But bureaucracy takes different forms in a traditionally totalitarian, traditionally democratic and democratic in a process of totalitarization countries. Only democratic bureaucracy that actually does help those who need help is genuinely different from bureaucratic zombies and mummies we see in “Ikiru”. But the private sector bureaucrats that feverishly work (in a robotically efficient manner) for their masters obsessed with power and profits – are in essence, really similar with the bureaucrats described by Kurosawa. While Japanese administrative bureaucrats are barely moving to help people, today’s American private sector bureaucrats are feverishly occupied with inventing ways of developing economy in a direction, which, as we see today, inevitably hurts people (promoting and intellectually justifying austerity for the majority, reducing Social Security and loudly/proudly proclaiming the intention to dismantle it completely). The type of bureaucracy that Kurosawa depicts in the film with excruciating details, proclaims humanistic intentions but doing nothing useful, while today’s private sector bureaucracy is feverishly busy inventing and realizing strategies which are destroying democratic prosperity of the population.

“Busy, always so very busy” – that’s how Kurosawa characterizes the main character before his spiritual transformation as a result of learning about his terminal illness, – “but in fact, Waranabe does absolutely nothing at all – other than protecting his own spot. The best way to protect your place in this world is to do nothing at all. Is this really what life is all about?” This Kurosawa’s characterization “translated” into the floating semantics of today’s American life can be read in the following way – Making money for private self-enrichment while hurting the health of the majority of people is today’s American metaphor of “doing nothing at all”. The Federal bureaucracy in post-WWII Japan is equivalent of the private bureaucracy of profit-making in our country today. In this sense Kurosawa’s “Ikiru/To Live” is a film about American life today. The both types of bureaucracy – in Japan of the 50s and in US today – are doing nothing for the people, but today’s corporate bureaucracy doing much less than nothing – it hurts people actively, creatively, energetically, much more than just not helping them.

Today’s American viewers of “Ikiru” have to take Kurosawa’s endorsement of this one man (the main character Watanabe) fight for the people’s wellbeing by trying to mobilize the inert bureaucratic apparatus to, indeed, help them –as a fight of a rare democratic politicians and humanists today with the neo-conservative attacks on democracy. How one person who has learned about his terminal illness was able to create the meaning of his life is, in essence, the story about all of us today confronting our mortality and in desperate need for meaning of life (something that transcends everyday fight for personal/group financial success) in order to balance our future death with investing in human life. We, today, instead of a meaningful life have overblown money dreams, technical toys/gadgets and megalomaniacal pseudo-patriotism of world domination. Mr. Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is not only helping future life but organizing the existing structures of society to make it more humane.

But Kurosawa is much more ahead of us today – in his mobilization of the human psychology as involved in fighting for people’s future, because just political motivation is not enough for success. With only political enthusiasm, as “progressive” as it may be, and without being inspired by the psychological energies of human existential spirituality, human hope of building a non-repressive and a just society, according to the film, cannot be realized. In this sense, Watanabe‘s terminal illness is Kurosawa’s metaphor for the necessity to be psychologically mobilized by human spiritual powers in order to be successful against human drive for advantage over others, for inequality and injustice.

Animalistic adaptation to leaders and bosses and to an environment of traditional ways of fighting for survival and success, and mechanical conformism as a way of life can be overcame only through our psychological development – the purely political: technical thinking is not enough. In this sense it is so important that Watanabe couldn’t be able to triumph over his death without the unintentional help and the presence of another human being nearby – of the girl named Toyo whose experiences and the emotional pain play in Watanabe’s life the role of emotional stimulus for his existentially spiritual mutation. The topic of solidarity and mutual help in the film became sublimated and interpreted by Kurosawa as a matter of not just political effectiveness but of spiritual growth as its foundation. Watanabe’s relationship with his married son doesn’t have any communal warmth and a future, like his relations with his colleagues when careerism (and hierarchical envy) occupies the place of human togetherness.

Kanji Watanabe’s “old man” song

Adaptation and conformism as a way of life

Watanabe is a “senior clerk” – Chief of the Section in a large bureaucratic institution. His whole life he was following the rules and decisions of his superiors. Behind him we see thousands upon thousands of documents – rejected requests for help or assistance. For his obedience Watanabe was, as if, awarded with… little angelic wings – look at the white collars of his shirt.

Recently Watanabe feels distracted from his work of refusing or transferring people’s requests to other departments by suspiciously painful sensations in his stomach.

Terminal illness as a spiritual help

Doctor’s interpretation of Watanabe’s test results (everything is okay, eat what you want, don’t worry, etc.) tells him that he is in trouble.

Like everybody in his situation Watanabe can think only about one thing on the earth.

Nightclub, drinking, dancing, striptease, “girls”, pop-music, noise of forgetfulness

With the advice of a casual friend Watanabe decides to see what he has never seen before – how human beings happily waste their lives.

A Girl named Toyo and Watanabe’s ordeal

A girl he barely knew, by chance and without any intentionality spent her time with him.

Toyo’s emotional vitality, stronger than angel’s wings, unexpectedly was exactly what he needed. Her energy and innocence were somehow deeper than the difference between life and death.

With Toyo nearby, Watanabe literally forgets, as if, never knew that he is doomed “in maximum six months”.

In spite of her poverty, Toyo, as if, is obsessed with life.

Kurosawa “helps” Takashi Shimura (Watanabe) and Miki Odagiri (Toyo) to feel the miraculous closeness between their personages.

Intensity of Watanabe emotional clinging to Toyo created in the girl intense ambiguous feelings. “Objectively” she felt troubled with this, but “subjectively” she was… attracted exactly to his emotional need and for this reason was afraid of him and herself. Watanabe really had a chance with her, but he didn’t look for this chance. He was a decent person.

Toyo tells Watanabe about her new job – making children‘s toys. But for him her trivial job was a sign of something else what he wasn’t able to understand yet.

Watanabe asks young girl what for him to do in his situation of no way out.

Watanabe – I have less than a year to live. When I found that out… somehow I was drawn to you. Once when I was a child, I almost drowned. It’s just like that feeling. Darkness everywhere, and nothing for me to hold onto… There’s just you.

– What help am I?

Watanabe – 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 are 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 will not 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. May be you don’t know either, but please… if you can… show me how to be like you!

Toyo – I don’t know…

Kanji Watanabe – How can I be like you?

Toyo – All I do is work – and eat. That’s all.

Kanji Watanabe – Really?

Toyo – Yes, really. I just make toys like this. (She puts a mechanical rabbit on the table). And that is all I do, but I feel as though I am friends with all the children in Japan. Mr. Watanabe, why don’t you do something like that, too?

Kanji – What could I do in the office?

Toyo – Well, that’s true. Then resign and find something else…

Kanji – It is too late… No, it isn’t too late. It isn’t impossible… I can do something if I really want to…

A deed which is equal to… immortality

Watanabe is on his way to save his life, to save his death – before it’s too late. According to Kurosawa, there is no antagonism between living and dying if we’re honest about our mortality. Self-centeredness, probably, is the result of the unconscious superstition of immortality.

Mayor of the city and two “senior clerks” are amazed by Watanabe’s insistence on helping the women asking to liberate their community from a sewage pond near their homes, breeding mosquitoes.

The local “free business” lobby tries hard to get the (taxpayers’) money Watanabe wants for his project of building children‘s playground in place of garbage dump. Private entrepreneurs want public money for building a sushi restaurant in the same location. But a mafia boss hired by the lobbyists feels helpless before Watanabe’s inability to become frightened by his menaces.

After Watanabe’s death, his colleagues discuss the reasons for his strange success in getting money for people’s project. It is a long scene with many precious details providing analogies with today’s American reality.

Kurosawa “helps” Watanabe to reach “immortality” in discovering the meaning of his life.

By using the words of a popular song to frame Watanabe’s deeds and death, Kurosawa makes a semantic bridge between the “immanent” wisdom of “enjoying your life in full” and the existentially transcendent meaning of realizing ourselves through helping others, when the two stop to contradict one another. When immanent energetic resources of human existence are invested into existentially transcendent goals we witness a spiritual transformation.


How an ordinary human being who lived like everybody (counting the crumbs of everyday existence), was transformed into an existential philosopher, a kind of a saint, the people’s and life’s hero? This incredible transfiguration turning the twilight into sunrise was created by Watanabe’s psychological encounter with the fact of his terminal illness. Let’s imagine us, Americans, in this situation. We could “fight our illness as our inner terrorist/attacker”, we could try to go anywhere on this planet looking for salvation from the devil-death if our medical establishment couldn’t help. We could give ourselves to cosmic grief. We could imagine resettling on another planet. And we as a society exhaust and poison ourselves by developing technology to be intact for the corruption of the illness and death. How many amongst us, Americans, who found themselves in Watanabe’s situation, could do what he has done – to change the problem of personal survival into that of helping those who need help, until we are still alive?

Watanabe found more courageous and creatively challenging solution to the problem of his personal death – he agreed to die without fear or grudge but simultaneously he overthrows the meaning of death by transforming it into the meaning of the deed which overcomes death’s despotic power over human psyche. He prefers existentially spiritual creativity to the hysterical efforts of trying to postpone death, colored by cosmic despair and sweetened by sentimental consolations.

To be able to conquer his grief of losing his body and his life, Watanabe had to change, without being aware of it, his/ours basic ontological position of being the owner of his life and his body – into being a magician of life – a person capable of transforming life as property into a life as a generous unconditional gift. He had to become capable to pass this gift to other people as a deed equivalent of his own eternity.

Kurosawa thoroughly depicts how instead of falling into believing in mechanical personal immortality Watanabe was able to transform his destiny into an exception which not only not contradicting but is reinforced by his ordinary humanity. We all should take lessons from Kurosawa’s analysis of our universal predicament and from Watanabe’s genius of transforming the decaying human being producing self-consoling phantoms into a treasure of earthly life.

Posted om Sep 2, 2014 –   “Ikiru/To Live” by Akira Kurosawa (1952) by Acting-Out Politics