Ikiru (1952) by Akira Kurasawa


Even without any ties to Russian literature, Ikiru, translated from Japanese to “To Live,” stands in excellence and reverence as a masterpiece of film. Often ranked as one of the best films of all time considered by many as legendary director Akira Kurosawa’s most impressive work of film, the significance of the film already precedes any attachments one may make to it. However, Ikiru brings to light the literary concepts of not only one but two renowned short stories from two of Russia’s most celebrated novelists. The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a novella by Leo Tolstoy, served as the major source of inspiration to Kurosawa in his direction of the film, which is not at all difficult to conceptualize. The life of Kurasawa’s Kanji Watanabe and Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilyich is most entirely matched, save several superficial details. Both men live unexceptionally satisfactory lives, working, though more so for Watanabe than Ilyich, as paper-pushing cogs in the bureaucratic machine, and returning to lackluster home lives where they are unappreciated and passively acknowledged for the most part by their family members. Still, the belief that they are fulfilling life’s meaning through this existence. It is not until Watanabe finds out that he has a fatal stomach ulcer that he takes another look at what his life and what his life has become does he realize that cultivating an externally stable and homeostatic life is not what one is meant to get from life. Similarly to how Ilyich initially feels cheated by what he thinks himself to deserve from life when he begins to feel the effects of the internal bleeding from his fall, Watanabe too does not understand fully how to come to terms with his illness. He is unsure of where this leaves him in life. Ikiru follows Watanabe through his journey of greater introspection in what the spiritual and internal aspects of living truly mean for cultivating and understanding of what the human experience is meant to offer and meant to be experienced as. Ilyich’s absolution from his previous worldview of life and his transition into understanding how the internal self one nourishes is the way to nourish a good life comes to him as he transitions from life into death. Though both men initially allowed life to pass by them, taking no time for greater reflection and understanding of what life truly meant for their own individual experiences, they were each eventually able to come full circle with their realization of what cultivation of the self truly means.

Though not as directly related to Ikiru and The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the life of the main character of Nikolai Gogol’s The Overcoat, Akakiy Akakievitch, mirrors Watanabe’s meager and menial existence. Both men are somewhat of nonentities in their lives, both to those around them and to themselves. Akakievitch is so much of a nonentity that Gogol repeatedly dehumanizes him in his narration of The Overcoat, and, in many ways, those surrounding Watanabe dehumanize his presence. His co-workers make jokes about him both behind and in front of his back. He is even less of an entity at home, his son treating him simply as a place holding, money-maker. Akakievitch and Watanabe live their lives with immense modesty and humbleness for their beings, their perspectives only to be changed by a new overcoat for Akakievitch and a stomach ulcer for Watanabe. However, though both men pass away at the end of their respective tales, it is clear that Watanabe has left the world after achieving self-actualization and developing a far greater understanding of what it means to live. Though Watanabe has a great many distinctions between Akakievitch and himself, it is not difficult to see how Kurosawa may have pulled some of his inspiration from Gogol’s short story to supplement his telling of Tolstoy’s.