You are dying. I mean right now. You are dying. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, you’re the oldest you’ve ever been and the youngest you’ll ever be again. But you’re living, too. You’re free and you’re alive and you’re full of limitless, unbridled potential. I think we often forget that, but who could blame us? Even if we’re healthy and educated and economically comfortable, there will always be very real, very constant road blocks to our happiness and productivity. I myself live the life of a high school teacher, one broken up into hour-long periods that often feel like they add up to very little. It can be draining, but every now and then, there’s a bright spot. Maybe I have a good class or a student writes a strong paper. Maybe one of them says “thank you” or applies what they’ve learned in a cool way. That’s when it becomes real again. That’s when I remember how much power I have and how important that job is. I’m sure you have similar moments in your own life, and it’s in those moments that I’m most thankful for Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, a film that reminds us that the smallest gestures are often the most important.
Based on Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the film approaches life and death with a certain loneliness. Watanabe lives alone and he dies alone. It sounds morose, but an important part of his journey is understanding that we must make our own meaning, or, to quote Joss Whedon’s Angel, “if nothing that we do matters, then all that matters is what we do.” This is especially difficult in the world of Ikiru, which finds Japan at a crossroads between pre-war austerity and Western capitalism. Watanabe’s son Mitsuo (Nobou Kaneko), for example, is horrified to hear that his father is gallivanting around with a much younger woman. He sees it as an embarrassment and never bothers to understand why Watanabe pursues it (or to learn that the relationship isn’t at all sexual). To him, it’s an elderly father’s duty to die and leave his son an inheritance with which he can build his own life. He expects his father to be satisfied with the world as prescribed, but Watanabe reaches for more. That’s not to suggest that Ikiru’s lead is a heroic futurist who changes the shape of culture as we know it — he isn’t. For just a moment, though, he inspires those who knew him to consider the meaning of their own lives.
(Note: I’m also thankful to The Warrior’s Camera author Stephen Prince for his invaluable commentary track on Criterion’s Ikiru release. I rarely watch the film without it.)