Ikiru – what it means to be alive

You know how it’s like when you Net Flicks a film and it takes about two months to get to you because other films keep popping into your queue ahead of it? Well, by the time Ikiru (To Live) came to us by way of the post, I’d forgotten why I rented it, who directed it, and what it was about.   My husband ripped the red mailing wrapper off of the disc, “Oh, it’s a Kurosawa film. That’s why you rented it.”

I am a big, BIG, no ENORMOUS, fan of Akira Kurosawa’s work. Some of my favorite films of his include: Yojimbo, Kagemusha, Ran, Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams.  Somehow he was able to do things which were unparalleled by so many other directors:

  • Play old and cherished story themes in a different light (Seven Samurai, Ran)
  • Create visual displays of color, choreography and substance that please and stimulate anyone’s aesthetic (Ran, the battle scenes; Dreams, the peach tree orchard scene)
  • Appeal to the viewer’s intellect while still capturing or charming the human heart of the audience (Ikiru, Dreams). Yes, some of the emotional play, especially in some of the Samurai films such as Ran or Kagemusha, are maudlin; however, those are tragedies and many tragedies have at least a pint-full of maudlin.

Ikiru’s story treats the dilemma and struggles of a mid-level bureaucrat or section chief, played by Takashi Shimura (also re-known for his role in The Seven Samurai and Kagemusha) who discovers that he has about a half a year to succumb to stomach cancer.  Watanabe, having lived his life for thirty years as a proper bureaucrat who has sacrificed much of his life to the well-being of his son, finds himself ‘mummified’ in his hum-drum existence, and unable to truly live. The film tracks his journey or quest to discover what being alive means. He tries briefly living a life of debauchery, but discovers that it leaves him wanting. Eventually, he discovers that living might come from the act of ‘making’ things that have meaning for oneself and others.

For Watanabe the act of ‘making something’ translates into busting through the bureaucracy and politics, to clean up a run-down neighborhood and establish a park and playground for the community and children. Nothing can stop him from accomplishing this goal. At his wake his peers and his underlings wonder at how he was able to accomplish the feat, some of them still believing that their proper turf was invaded improperly to get the job done, a behavior and belief typical in places where work politics can impede accomplishment of tasks.  His more faithful employees come to the conclusion that he knew of his cancer and knowing that he had very little time to get things done, drove on with more fervor than ever. In a fit of drunken empathy, the bureaucrats all vow to take action to ‘make things happen’ in view of Watanabe’s example. However, the next sobered scene displays an office mechanized and untouched by the previous day’s emotion.

Those who believe that there should be concrete and happy endings to all stories, might think that it is wrong to end a moral tale like Ikiru by showing how the message or moral may not stick with the audience. The bureacrats returned to their old ways (because change takes more than just an emotional realization that it’s needed).  It’s a realistic reminder that change is not instantaneous. Yes, it takes a hell (excuse me) of a lot more than just a message, appeal and realization that we must or need to change.  It takes commitment, leadership, vision and a strategy and well-worked out tactical plan. Watanabe was able to get his goal of cleaning up the neighborhood and buliding the park because he was committed (he also was able to inspire this commitment in his employees via his actions and resolve).  He had a clear vision of what he wanted to have accomplished and drove a tactical plan. Though the audience doesn’t know the details of this plan, we can assume that he had one and drove it.

Takashi Shimura as the driven bureaucrat, Kanji Watanabe

If you’ve read my blog up to this point you’ll probably understand why I really got into this movie. Strangely, it couldn’t have come at a more appropriate time.  For the past year or so, I’ve been hearing from others that I should just acquiesce and realize that change isn’t really possible in a large bureaucracy.  More, I’d been hearing hints of the message: find something outside of your work the brings meaning to your life.  My intuition told me that there was something wrong with this assumption or approach to working life. More, if the structure of work could only harness the will and power of employees who found meaning in their jobs, more than just parks and playgrounds can be accomplished.

I honestly have been having a Crisis of Faith at my work because I don’t see a fit plan of action for us from the high-higher ups above my own organization. I don’t see a change in leadership or their approach, and I don’t see a clear picture of where we need to go and even a pencil sketch of how we’re supposed to get there.  Some may feel that it’s wrong, absolutely wrong, to express my Crisis of Faith because one must be faithful and true to the cause without showing any doubt, because expressing doubt is like apologizing: it shows how just how weak you are to others. Also, in some leadership circles it is not kosher for employees to  express doubt because it makes you all too visible to management as a thorn or ‘trouble-maker.’ I’m starting to believe that having such a crisis can only make you stronger if you’re able to figure out how to get out of it.  I feel that I can see or sense a direction or strategy; however, after assessing my skills and capabilities, I realize that I don’t exactly have what it takes to start this vision on my own. Among other skills I’m lacking are the following:

  • ability to read and take advantage of the political situation
  • ability to positively influence others and communicate in a firm but friendly way
  • ability to translate my intentions and meaning to others in a way they can understand or relate to

I’m not sure where this realization is going to lead me.  I can of course take the items above and set a learning plan via reading or getting coaching from people who can or are qualified to provide it.  I can also set goals for behaviors attached to each of the three items above.   I can also seek answer to my questions about our over-all vision and plan. I may have to look for some of these answers from observations of our direction and behavior rather than rely on the words and explicit explanations of our leaders.  But perhaps I can show or explain to them how important it is to people like myself to have these things and how empowering it can be.  It’s a start.

Reflecting on Ikiru has given me a little fuel for hope. Now I just have to remember to apply the hope and vision to a tactical plan where I can have some influence.  If I find that I don’t then I need to truly need to look elsewhere. As was noted recently on “Slow Leadership:”

Then try living from the inside out. Start with your deepest values. Focus on what feels most important to you and ignore what others say. It’s your life, isn’t it? If you’re called to be a manager, that’s a great calling. But so is the calling to be a musician, or a baker, or a candlestick maker. Whatever your values point you towards, that’s what you should do. You’ll do it better, enjoy life more and have more satisfaction.

Notes and Points of Interest:

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2 Responses to “Ikiru – what it means to be alive”


  1. 1 shannonoz January 22, 2007 at 5:08 pm

    Do we work at the same company? Ha ha. This is a reminder of how we are all facing similar problems and obstacles to real change. A while back, after my “break,” I did work with a coach who taught me just what you quote above — to start with my values. Once I had expressed my personal values and committed to them, it was clearer to me what I needed to change to make my work situation tenable for me. I also identified my strengths and my passions, the things that really motivate me. Just going through this exercise was so helpful in clarifying things for me and at least getting me started in a new direction, rather than staying stuck in my frustration. I’m not quite sure what my tactical plan is yet, either, but that’s evolving as we go along.

  2. 2 nkilkenny January 24, 2007 at 12:20 am

    As the “Slow Leadership Guru” notes… our list of things that are important or our values should or probably will change… we’re not static beings after all. My husband actually noted to me yesterday, look maybe instead of finding yourself drowning in a sea you should look for your own park with swingset like Watanabe (i.e. small change or project) that you can influence change upon so you don’t feel like you’re banging your head against a wall all the time.


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