“Ikiru” – A classic Kurosawa movie

by Rev. Marvin Harada.

Recently I had the opportunity to watch the classic, Akira Kurosawa movie titled, “Ikiru” (To live). I was told about this movie many years ago in a conversation that I had with the late Tak Kosakura. He told me about how he felt this movie had so many Buddhist messages. I always meant to find and see this movie, but I just never got around to it. Finally, I ordered the movie and watched it. What a wonderful movie it is. It is truly a classic. For this month’s article, I would like to discuss this movie and relate the Buddhist teachings and messages that I received from the movie.

The movie is about a city bureaucrat in Japan, who has worked for years, but finds out that he has stomach cancer and maybe 6 months or a year to live. The main character of the movie, a man named “Watanabe”, is shocked and dismayed by his plight. He just can’t face his death, because he realizes that he hasn’t done anything meaningful in his life. He cannot die like that. He must find something meaningful in his life.

He then goes on a search to find something meaningful. He goes to a bar and thinks about “living it up” for a night, but he realizes his life has been so mundane that he doesn’t even know how to “live it up.” He meets a man at a bar and tells him he has money so please show him how to “live it up” for an evening. The man takes him to gamble at Pachinko, and they go to nightclubs and drinking places dancing and carousing. But Watanabe-san isn’t satisfied. This isn’t it. This isn’t the something meaningful he has been looking for.

Watanabe-san then begins to follow around and spend time with a young woman who used to work in his office. He is attracted to her not in a romantic sense, but she seems so alive, so vibrant. He wants to live, even one day like her, but he doesn’t know how. He doesn’t know why she is able to live that way. Finally, she suggests that he try building or making something. She has a job in which she makes toys, and she finds it very enjoyable, making toys for children.

The light goes on in Watanabe-san’s head, and he realizes something that he can make - a park for children. Mothers had been coming into the city office complaining about a swampy area of town that was a mess, with mosquitoes and all. These citizens just got the run around at the city office. Watanabe himself just sent them off to the engineering department, where they were sent to sewage, then to pest control, etc. etc. He realized he could do something meaningful in his life. He could make a park for children.

In the touching final scene of the movie, Watanabe-san had gone to the park at night, and died swinging on one of the swings in the park he had built, happy and content with his life because he had done something meaningful.

What would you do if the doctor told you that you had six months or a year to live? It could happen to any of us, at any time. Would you feel like Watanabe-san, that you wouldn’t be able to die because you had never done something meaningful in life? How would you react? How would you live those remaining six months or a year?

It is challenging question. If we have been living a meaningful life, then even if the doctor told us we only had six months to live, we would be able to face and accept our death. But if we haven’t had a meaningful life, if we have been just “existing” and not truly “living”, then death poses a real question for us. What have I been living for? Just to take up space on this earth? Just to consume precious natural resources? Even if we have had a meaningful career, we might feel like our life hasn’t been that meaningful, since we were just one cog in a big wheel of a corporation, that went on just fine without us after we retired.

As I wrote last month, I think that through Buddhism, we can find the deepest meaning of our life.

The late Rev. Kakue Miyaji, the father of our Rev. Akio Miyaji, used to say in his lectures that if you truly understand Shin Buddhism, then you can die at anytime, no matter when it comes. I think this means that a person who has found their deepest meaning of life is able to face and accept death whenever it comes, because they have lived a most meaningful life, every day.

The Myokonin Saichi, in one of his poems says, “When I die, I will become the immortal Namuamidabutsu.” For Saichi, he can die at any time because he has found the deepest meaning of life in the Nembutsu, Namuamidabutsu. Death doesn’t mean simply the end of his life, because he has encountered the truth of the Nembutsu as a timeless, eternal truth. That is why he becomes the immortal Namuamidabutsu at death. Saichi doesn’t become immortal, but he becomes the immortal Namuamidabutsu.

Through the Nembutsu we can find our deepest meaning of life. We can come to know deeply, what it means to live (ikiru), and we can come to face and accept our own death because we have lived something meaningful in our own life.


Rev. Marvin Harada