I showed Akira Kurosawa’s magnificent 1952 film Ikiru (To Live) this past Tuesday (in an Adult Education series featuring “Funerals on Film”) and was once again profoundly moved. This time, however, I couldn’t help but see the movie through the lens of our current political impasse. Although this film focuses on how to handle death, it also has important things to teach those of us who think we will be living for a while.
Ikiru is about a city bureaucrat, Watanabe, who is living a life of quiet desperation and who learns he has stomach cancer. Realizing that his life resembles that of a mummy, he tries having a wild night on the town and then begins dating a young woman from his office. He is vampire-like in the way he tries to feast off her youth and energy and she is creeped out. But he learns from her what he must do: he must build something.
Although he only has five months left to live, he determines he will help some of the city’s inhabitants get a park constructed. Up to this point, they have been given a bureaucratic runaround, even though their children have no place to play and the area is disease ridden and unsafe. He spends his final five months quietly but unrelentingly plaguing every relevant office until he gets the park built.
The message for us today is that persistence and a good heart can make bring about change. Perhaps not a lot of change. Perhaps only a park. But change nonetheless.
I think of those who are disillusioned that Barack Obama’s vision of hope and change hasn’t transformed America into the land of their dreams. For a few moments I had extravagant hopes myself. But then I remembered that, as in Ikiru, there are turf wars and mounds of paper and vested interests and people being people. We get a glimpse of something beautiful but then are brought up short by the unpleasant truth that change requires dogged determination. It’s not glamorous work.
Towards the end of the film, Wantanabe’s fellow workers, telling stories about him at his funeral, suddenly realize what an amazing thing he has accomplished. Although wracked with pain and knowing that he was dying, he pushed through bureaucratic walls that everyone assumed were impenetrable. They discover that he died happy and at peace with the world, swinging on one of the park’s swings and singing the haunting song “Life Is Brief”:
Life is so short
Fall in love, dear maiden
While your lips are still red
And before you are cold,
For there will be no tomorrow.
Inspired, they vow to follow Wantanabe’s footsteps.
And then, of course, they return to business as usual. In a sign of defeat, one of the more sensitive of Watanabe’s co-workers slumps back into his chair and we see him disappear behind a mound of papers.
But in the final scene, he is out looking at the park, which is filled with happy children. Kurosawa leaves us with this hope and this challenge.
We shouldn’t have to be dying to arrive at Watanabe’s epiphany that our lives are not about our private pain. They are about what we offer to the world. So if you are someone whose heart has been broken by Obama, or by America, get over it and get to work. There are parks to be built.
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