Kanji lives with his grown son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko), and Mitsuo's wife Kazue (Kyôko Seki). Kanji is a widower. His wife died many years ago. Mitsuo acts ungrateful, selfish, and entitled relative to his father, and Kazue is indifferent if not cold to Kanji.
The middle-aged Kanji has had stomach pains, and realizes from a doctor visit that he has cancer, with about six months left to live. Kanji descends into a deep depression. Kanji does not tell his condition to his son. He leaves the house each morning, but does not go to work.
At a bar, he befriends a pulp fiction writer (Yûnosuke Itô) and reveals he is terminally ill. The sympathetic writer takes Kanji on a tour of the city's seedy night life, but that fails to cheer him up.
The next morning, Kanji is accosted by Toyo (Miki Odagiri), a cheerful young woman who works in Kanji's office. Toyo needs Kanji's seal on her resignation letter. Kanji begins a romantic friendship with Toyo despite their formidable age difference. She is eventually disturbed by his continual demands on her time, and cuts him off, but not before she inspires him to accomplish something before his death.
A group of housewives complain at the office about a sewage leak in their neighborhood. They want to turn the area into a park, but receive a bureaucratic runaround. Kanji adopts their cause, and spends the next few months pestering government officials to build the park. This is indeed accomplished, and Kanji spends his last night in the park before passing.
At his funeral service, Mitsuo and Kazue are present, along with a slew of Kanji's longtime fellow workers. Also there is the deputy mayor (Nobuo Nakamura), and a few members of his staff. The vainglorious, manipulative, and cynical deputy mayor attempts to seize credit for the successful new park. But a consensus arises that it was built only through Kanji's persistence in cutting through seemingly intractable red tape.
Kanji's co-workers become drunk with sake, and decide to follow Kanji's example in rising above the bureaucracy to accomplish great things. But the next day at work, the passion has faded, and it is clear that nothing has changed, after all, aside from the new park.
How others will see it. Ikiru won Best Film at the 1953 Kinema Junpo Awards. Outside Japan, though, it took a little longer for the movie to receive its due. Kurosawa won the Golden Berlin Bear at the Berlin Film Festival in 1954, but it was not until 1960 (!) that Shimura was nominated for Best Foreign Actor at BAFTA. By then, Kurosawa was already regarded as the greatest Japanese film director, a title he continues to hold today despite the impressive animation resume of Hayao Miyazaki.
Ikiru is unique among Kurosawa films of the era in that Toshirô Mifune does not steal the show. He does not appear in Ikiru at all. But it is no surprise that Shimura is the alternative lead, given that he appears in 19 different Kurosawa films, more than Mifune, who had a falling out with Kurosawa during the making of Red Beard (1965).
Today at imdb.com, Ikiru has nearly 65K user votes, a huge total for a black and white Japanese film from nearly sixty years ago. The user ratings are lofty at 8.3 out of 10. Ikiru is presently ranked #112 in the vaunted IMDB Top 250 list, between Metropolis (1927) and The Sting (1973).
A typical user review is titled "A complex and thought-provoking masterpiece." The reviews ladle on the praise for Kurosawa's take on a life squandered on paperwork, the disaster of impending death, and a last ray of hope to bring meaning to one's waning existence.
How I felt about it. Ikiru is certainly the best Kurosawa movie, a sweeping statement given his filmography extends for fifty years, and practically every movie he made is good. The 1950s was his most glorious decade, but he made a significant comeback in the 1980s, with Ran and Kagemusha.
In fact, Kurosawa is the greatest film director of them all. It's true that Stanley Kubrick, Alfred Hitchcock, and Orson Welles have each made one or two movies that are better than anything Kurosawa directed. And perhaps their genius exceeded that of Kurosawa. But they were all less consistent than the Japanese master, who gave every film his best effort, and had little interest in producing a blockbuster. No Jamaica Inn (1939) lurks within the Kurosawa catalog.
Thus, Kurosawa is not afraid to have his lead be a homely, downtrodden man of ordinary circumstances. He is not afraid to film a depressing story. And he doesn't allow his lead character, Kanji, to have a dubious Jekyll to Hyde transformation despite his knowing that there is no tomorrow. Instead, Kanji unknowingly adopts Gandhi's tactics of nonviolent resistance to achieve just ends. No wonder he gets a great send-off when his ship finally sails.