The black and white film, Ikiru, is about Kanji Watanabe, a man who has worked as a bureaucrat for nearly three centuries. Living his life in a very linear and minimalistic way, Mr. Watanabe is surprised with unpleasing news from his doctor. Finding out that he has stomach cancer, Mr. Watanabe is left with unpleasing news but cannot openly tell anyone as his wife is dead and his son is highly focused on the benefits he will receive from his father’s fortune. Learning that he has less than a year to live, he begins to realize that his life is terminal and immediately begins to focus his attention on what his hard earned money will be spent on.
In the midst of attempting to understand that his life was slowly coming to an end, Mr. Watanabe meets a young lady, Toyo, who lives her life in a positive and optimistic way. The theme of rebirth is prominent in the film during a scene where “Happy Birthday” was sung. This scene can be interpreted as an act of rebirth as Mr. Watanabe was leaving his old simplistic life to living a new life geared towards a meaningful and purposeful way of living. Unfortunately, Mr. Watanabe waits to live until it is time to die but through the transitions of insightful actions shown by the protagonist, the theme of rebirth is presented in the film.
The film Ikiru when translated means “to live” and in Mr. Watanabe’s case, is his opportunity to live before his life comes to an end. During the middle of the film, Happy Birthday is being sung to a young lady and as Mr. Watanabe and the lady cross paths, the theme of death and the act of being rebirthed is prevalent. This idea can be supported through this part of the film as Mr. Watanabe stops living his undesirable life and attempts to live his life to its fullest extent. This is done through the protagonists genuine desire to be mindful of his actions. Mr. Watanabe’s transition between the aesthetic and the ethical can be classified as a form of literal death but can also be interpreted as a resurrection of his past life.
Approaching this film using a religious lense, the act of being rebirthed strongly resembles the action of reclaiming one’s life. Despite his full awareness of being unable to escape his inevitable situation, the protagonist uses this opportunity to give back to the community. This transition is first shown through a spiritual realization that the protagonist has when he sees the toy rabbit. In Mr. Watanabe’s eyes, the rabbit was more than just a toy as it symbolizes youthfulness. Understanding that his purpose in this world was not predetermined, the existential principle of existence preceding essence is prominent in Ikiru. This idea is further presented in the film as the protagonist begins to understand that our purpose in life is not pre-established but instead discovered through different aspects and stages of our lives. Determining the outcome of his life, Mr. Watanabe commits to his goal of trying to build a children’s park. The idea of the protagonist taking the rabbit and committing to something, again, serves as a symbol of his rebirth and continuous growth.
In the beginning of the film the protagonist, Mr. Watanabe, approaches life in an unreflective and actively-passive way. Living each day the same as the last, Mr. Watanabe was perceived to be a man that indulged himself with work but was unsuccessful in finding any form meaning in his life. The film Ikiru suggests the theme of rebirth as an important part of one’s life as purpose is discovered and then acted upon. Mr. Watanabe’s ability to willingly reflect on his life and create meaningful change further suggests the theme of rebirth as the protagonist is now seen as a work in progress.