Watanabe is the public affair’s section chief for the Tokyo bureaucracy. He's dying of stomach cancer. Knowing death is imminent, he strives to find what life is all about. Much of the movie is dark, as we see the inefficiency of a bureaucracy that exists only for itself. Watanabe’s days are spent stamping papers and referring request to other departments within the government. Early in the film, a group of women come to the Watanabe, asking for help in cleaning up a cesspool. Watanabe says they have to go elsewhere, and every department gives them the run around. Nothing gets done.
Feeling sorry for himself, and thinking that his son is only interested in his money, Watanabe goes out for a night on the town. When I rented this film from Netflix, I mistakenly thought it might be a Japanese version of “Leaving Las Vegas.” Someone who is dying (although Nicholas Cage in “Leaving Las Vegas” didn’t have a terminal illness) goes out on a binge. I was wrong. Yes, Watanabe does go out for a night on the town, but he finds there’s much to live for. He meets a author who, upon learning about his cancer, shows him the nightlife of Tokyo. They go to a cabaret and a strip club. The next day he meets Toyo, a young woman who works in his section. She’s decided to quit working for the government. They spend several days together, not as lovers as his son thinks, but with Toyo helping Watanabe get in touch with his desire to live. Watanabe has an epiphany. Having come to the conclusion that he’s wasted his life doing nothing, he goes back to the office and pulls out the petition from the women who had complained about the cesspool in their neighborhood. He sets out to clean it up and to create a new park in a poor section of the city, a task that forces him to go against customs and to challenge his superiors.
The movie then shifts to Watanabe’s funeral. His son and wife, along with his co-workers and even the deputy mayor gathered in front of a shrine set up for Watanabe. As they drink sake, people come to pay their respect. Slowly, Watanabe’s role in creating the new park comes out. You learn from a policeman visiting the shrine that Watanabe had died in the park, on a swing where he’d been singing an old love song (Life is Short) during a snowstorm. As the sake takes over, Watanabe’s co-workers pledge themselves to reform the government. The movie then ends with two short scenes, Watanabe’s co-workers going back to old habits and with children playing in the park.
This movie is a Japanese adaptation of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich. It’s pace is at times slow, but Karosawa tells a compelling story: the hopelessness of many people caught within the bureaucracy as well as the difference Watanabe made once he had a vision. Ikiru means “to live,” and the film is about finding meaning for life. After this movie, Karosawa went on to direct one of the most famous Japanese films, the “Seven Samurai.”