“What have you been up to?” That’s the question I dread most when I bump into an old acquaintance. Truthfully, for the last seven years, I’ve accomplished little. A few part time jobs here, and a few classes there. Certainly not enough to impress someone that I didn’t want to see in the first place. As I make up an excuse to end the conversation, I’m left wondering if I’ve just been spinning my wheels.
Luckily for me, I’m not the only one that’s had this problem. In Akira Kurosawa’s drama, Ikiru, a bureaucrat by the name of Kanji Watanabe has spent 30 years of his life as a glorified rubber stamp. A rubber stamp for giving citizens the run-around, no less. It isn’t until he gets an x-ray and discovers he’s stricken with terminal stomach cancer that he begins to change.
Of course, not all change is good. At first, Watanabe tries to shake up his monotonous past by getting drunk and flirting with prostitutes in the night. Here, he’s a stumbling and lost man. It isn’t until providence leads him to talk with an energetic young toymaker that he’s inspired to make a real difference in life.
For his six months left on Earth, Watanabe fights government waste and corruption, and even stands up to a gang, to have a park built for children. Using all his reserves of strength, he succeeds, and finally dies at peace on a swingset. As an aside, Ikiru, produced all the way back in 1952, has sensational acting and an eye for the subtle. When Watanabe started tearfully singing “Gondola no Uta” I nearly cried myself.
Ikiru and Watanabe’s life’s message is this: It’s not too late to change. What a Christian message! Look at Peter, who denied Jesus three times, yet became the rock of the church. Or look at the thief on the cross. He didn’t even have half a year, at the last possible minute he was redeemed.
Ikiru also shows the feebleness of the institutions that are supposed to protect us. The film shows us clearly how politics is not our salvation. To put it another way… the people you elect don’t give a damn about you. Bob McDonnell and John Edwards are just the guys that got caught.
Still, what I come back to is this: Watanabe is us. Every one of us. We are all clocks ticking away. Not all work is equal. For many toil in a haze, barely alive. We’re not dead yet. Let us live and love one another.