Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic masterpiece, Ikiru, is a wonderful movie. Kurosawa was a mid-20th century Japanese director, and his movies are absolutely brilliant, if you can survive three hours of black and white Japanese with subtitles. If you can, you will find that his characters speak to you out of their lives at a very deep level.
The name of the movie is a clue to its subject matter. “Ikiru” means “to live”, and so the movie has to do with life. In fact, it has to do with life, death, and how we deal with these issues when the doctor tells us we have an exit date scheduled and it’s soon.

In Ikiru, Watanabe is a man who has worked for the government as a low level bureaucrat for 30 years, and has really done nothing with his life except go to work and come home, sleep, shave, and repeat. Then he finds out that he has stomach cancer, and only has a few months to live. And the movie doesn’t deal with his death so much as it deals with the steps of grief that he goes through in adjusting to his new reality.

At first, he sits in numb darkness. Then he is haunted by all of the “would have been, should have been, and could have been”. He finds that he has enormous regrets about his life, because for the past 30 years he has lived without living. Then he seeks solace in sake, in late night carousing, the company of women, but none of it sooths his suffering.

Finally, he meets a young woman who seems so alive to him in the effervescence of her youth, that he starts spending all of his time with her. And at one of the climactic moments in the movie, he explains to her that he wants to find out what makes her so alive, because he wants to know what it is to live with so much life at least once before he dies. And who wouldn’t? It’s truly touching.

But what is so sad about the movie, the 300 pound gorilla in the middle of the room, is the absence of God—the absence of a God who knows what it means to suffer and is closest to us in our suffering.
Watanabe, being Japanese, is a Shinto/Buddhist, as was the film’s director, and so the movie fails to answer the ultimate question of life, death and its meaning.

Watanabe ends up finding his answer in pushing a public works project through the bureaucratic system with the last months of his life, to turn a public nuisance into a park for children, which is nice, but as an answer to the question of suffering is thoroughly unconvincing for a believer in Christ, because I know that when I suffer God is there with me.

This man felt all alone in his suffering to the bitter end, but I know in my suffering that I’m not alone. Tolstoy said, “Where love is, there God is also”. But I would go further and say, “Where suffering is, there God is also, and he’s there out of his love for us.”

UPDATE: Here’s the original 1952 movie trailer. It very much mirrors the movie itself, in that it asks the right questions, but struggles with and in the end doesn’t seem able to come up with the right answer (the only answer that gives us any real hope).