Ikiru and meaning-making

December 31, 2020

“What would you do if you had 6 months to live?”

That’s the question Kanji Watanabe is faced with in Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952).

Watanabe has spent most of his life at the city office. He is always busy, as are his colleagues. Yet, if one were to ask him what he does, there is not much that he can say. He stamps papers and moves them from one pile to another. If there is a request for action, he directs it to another department. He has, what we might call, a bullshit job.

When Watanabe learns that he has stomach cancer and that he might only have six months to live, he reflects on his life and realizes that cancer is not his biggest problem. He does not tell anyone: not his son nor his colleagues. His life lacks meaning. A night of drinking does not give his life meaning. He needs to find what makes him happy.

Kurosawa is not interested in abstractions. He does not want us to ask, “what is the meaning of life?” Instead, Kurosawa introduces Toyo, a young girl who quits her job at the city office because it is too boring. She might be young, but she is able to see through the pretence at the basis of the bureaucracy. She wants to do something that gives her life meaning. Watanabe is attracted to her liveness and he asks, “Why are you so incredibly alive?”

Watanabe recognizes that small things can give us meaning. For Toyo, making toy rabbits gives meaning to her life as these toys make others happy. When Watanabe realizes that his happiness can be linked to that of others, he gets back to office and tirelessly pursues a project that he finds important. He wants to help build a park.

His colleagues are surprised that he is pushing for a project that is not even his department’s responsibility. He is willing to bow down to anyone to make things happen. They are baffled that he is “doing” something after being a “mummy” for thirty years. After a few months, the park is inaugurated and, on a cold night, Watanabe dies on a swing in the park. He looked happy, said the policeman who saw him last.

Had Watanabe not known that he had stomach cancer, would he have found meaning in his life? In fact, he learnt of his diagnosis through a fellow patient as the paternalistic doctor did not reveal the true diagnosis to him. Regardless, should we wait till we have a life threatening disease before we change our ways? As mortals, we could drop dead any time. The certainty of death, as some existentialists believe, should drive how we live. If we are part of a bullshit charade, now is the time to change.

But living a meaningful life is not easy. Some of us try to find meaning in a person. Some try to find meaning in a job. Maybe trying to find meaning is not a one-time solution. What is desirable and satisfactory today, may not be tomorrow. How to find meaning in our lives may be a Sisyphean task.

As for Watanabe’s colleagues, at his funeral, they attribute his change to his awareness that he had cancer. They get drunk and become emotional. They see how useless their tasks are. The next morning, when they get back to office, as you might expect, nothing changes. They continue with their meaningless chores.

Would you live differently if you only had 6 months left?

Last updated on January 15, 2021