Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 movie about humanity, titled Ikiru (which translates as To Live), could very well have been called The Mystery Of Mr. Watanabe. The movie is about realising that your entire life has been for nothing, and finally deciding to do something life-changing for someone else as well as for yourself. But its main character, Mr. Watanabe, is as enigmatic as the pyramids of Giza. He is lonely, wealthy, forlorn, without a present and without a future, and at times, he is pathetically eerie.
We know very little about him. Whatever we know of him is told through a series of interesting flashbacks that recount his days as a single father, struggling to raise his only son. Later, we are told a bit more — or nothing at all — through a second series of flashbacks that chronicle his determination to get a city park built. His present is expressed as a revelation; he trudges through life like a ghost, existing everywhere and nowhere at the same time. When he finally decides to do something worthwhile with his life, his existence has meaning.
He’s been working in the Public Affairs office of City Hall for thirty years. He has an unblemished record and a couple of plaques of commendation. But none of it means anything. His life is empty. He sits at his desk, filing through papers, marking them with his special seal that indicates he’s seen them. He speaks to no one, not even to his son, who’s drifted far from him now that he’s married. He goes home to his room, prepares for bed, and cries himself to sleep, realising that time as passed him by quickly, and he has nothing to show for it.
All this is made worse when he deduces for himself that he has stomach cancer. I say “he deduces for himself” because his doctor tells him that it’s just a minor stomach ulcer, and that he can continue eating anything he wants. But Watanabe knows the truth, and it hits him hard. He has maybe six months to live. So he stops going to work, which sprouts some nasty rumours and gossip, and he becomes a bigger introvert. Everything about his character is internalized, except for when he finds solace in his young female colleague, who takes him out for a good time out of pity, but later wards him off like he’s an evil spirit. In their last lunch together, he tells her of his childhood and how his parents weren’t around when he was drowning in the pool. He is drowning again now, and no one’s around to save him.
So he saves himself by taking on a challenge. A group of women have been going to City Hall for donkeys years, complaining about the safety hazards of stagnant water in their neighbourhood. They request a park be built to cover it up. They approach Public Affairs and get referred to Engineering. Engineering refers them to Parks and Recreation. Parks and Recreation refers them to Environmental Safety. Environmental Safety refers them to the deputy mayor, who refers them to Child Welfare. And it goes on and on and on, round in endless circles. “Everyone protects their own turf”, an employee says. The spark that ignites in Watanabe’s mind is that he’s been protecting his own turf for thirty years, and now it’s time to protect someone else’s. His challenge: Wade through the political bog that stands in his way and build the park.
Usually, telling you if a character dies would be giving away a massive chunk of the plot. But we know that Watanabe dies. What’s surprising is that it happens sooner than expected. How Kurosawa shapes what happens after his death is just as thought-provoking as what happens before. The conversations that take place act like jigsaw puzzles; they try to piece the man together through recollections and memories, eventually realising that their own lives need inspection.
In many ways, we are bound to Watanabe. The emptiness of his life is an emptiness we all have felt at one point or another. Don’t we always look back and ask ourselves, “What have I done?”? Even if we haven’t, the immediacy of living a fruitless life is something that should make us think twice about the choices we’ve made, and the choices we have yet to make. I just hope we don’t need stomach cancer to give us that little nudge.
Best Moment | The funeral scene. It is splendidly choreographed and shot. There is formality, and informality. Respect, and insult. All revolving around the life of Mr. Watanabe.
Worst Moment | Nope.