The Daily Stream: Whether You Watch the Olympics or Not, 'Ikiru' Is Essential Viewing

(Welcome to The Daily Stream, an ongoing series in which the /Film team shares what they’ve been watching, why it’s worth checking out, and where you can stream it.)

The Movie: Ikiru

Where You Can Stream It: The Criterion Channel

The Pitch: Hit with a terminal illness, a widower stuck in a bureaucrat’s job rediscovers what it means to live.

Why It’s Essential Viewing: The commencement of the postponed 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo this weekend has put Japan in the international spotlight. With that in mind, there’s no better time to explore the work of the country’s greatest filmmaker: Akira KurosawaIkiru is one of his masterpieces and though it deals with death, it might actually be his most life-affirming film. Beyond the usual round of inspiring athletic achievements, we could all use a little life affirmation, couldn’t we?

The Olympics are on and even if you’re not a big fan of sports, it’s a good excuse to catch up on Japanese cinema. You don’t have to be a world-class athlete whose face is on a box of Wheaties to appreciate these words: doing is living.

Ikiru means “to live” in Japanese. However, it’s not until the protagonist of Kurosawa’s 1952 film, Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), is looking down the barrel of death that he finally overcomes the ineffectual bureaucracy that is his world.

Watanabe’s doctor withholds the official diagnosis from him, but he knows he’s dying. Faced with stomach cancer, he seeks comfort from post-war Tokyo’s nightlife, but to no avail. He’s drawn to the youthful vitality of one of his co-workers, but hitching himself to her isn’t a long-term solution, either. That’s the problem: Watanabe doesn’t have long. In the end, he might derive more fulfillment from seeing a simple playground built.

Sure, Toshiro Mifune is great, but Kurosawa’s other frequent collaborator, Shimura, is my Japanese wife’s favorite Japanese actor. His soulful, expressive eyes communicate with a glance what no mere line of dialogue could ever hope to convey. This is our It’s a Wonderful Life, an annual holiday viewing tradition for us. You’ve heard of Christmas in July? Well, as a cinephile, it might just feel like Christmas if you give Ikiru a watch. Kurosawa is the gift that keeps on giving.

The men at Watanabe’s wake, his coworkers, carouse and vow to change their ways and live fully, in his honor. Yet they’re stuck in the same cycle of inaction that he was before he died. Who’s really dead, them or him? Are the plans we ourselves make just plans, or is the dreamer in us going to become a doer (and thereby truly live)?

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