I had just finished watching Kurosawa’s 1952 opus Ikiru (‘To Live’) this morning. A moving and poignant tale of the chief of a city council public liaison office, Kanji Watanabe, played by Takashi Shimura, who had been in a dead-end desk job for the past 30 years of his life where all he does is sit, monotonously sifting through the daily paperwork and red tape, everything by the book.

The film began with an x-ray image (a barium meal for those in the know!) which showed that Watanabe has stomach cancer. Watanabe knew full well that he had a few more months to live at the most. It was only then that he realised all these years he had never done anything meaningful in his life. He had thought by working diligently all this time, after the death of his wife, he could ensure the happiness of Mitsuo, his only son. However, all Mitsuo and his wife care about is getting their hands on his father’s money. And as far as Mitsuo was concerned, all his father ever did is work, without a care for the world.

Watanabe then began to wander around, fraternising with the dregs of society trying to drown his sorrows at the various sake bars around Tokyo. It wasn’t until when Toyo, a member of his office staff, came to his house requesting that she may tender her resignation, that Watanabe felt that he had to change.

He needed to do something worthwhile before he dies.

In response to a petition from a group of women in a poor part of town requesting that the city council builds a playground for the children, he began to fight hard to get through the bureaucracy and red tape that beleaguered the system. After much persistence, he found gratification after successfully building the much needed playground. His life (which was coming to an end) finally acquired meaning.

This was one of Kurosawa’s finest non-jidai geki (period drama) films, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Apparently, Ikiru was quoted to be one of Spielberg’s favourite films of all time. After winning the accolade for Best Film at the Venice Film Festival in 1951 for Rashomon, Kurosawa promised to introduce the world to see for themselves, post-war modern Japan. This was Takashi Shimura’s finest performance, in my opinion, a far cry from his katana-brandishing role as Kambei, the samurai leader in Seven Samurai. The most memorable, also heart-rending, scene was him singing forlornly (and badly) accompanied by the piano playing at a bar, reminding us all that life is short and to seize the day.

Fall in love, sweet maiden
Before your red lips fade
Before passion cools
For there will be no tomorrow
Fall in love, sweet maiden
While your hair is black
While your heart is still aflame
For today will never return