Life Is So Short, Fall in Love, Dear Maiden

Takashi Shimura in "Ikiru"

Film Friday

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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3 Comments

  1. Susan
    Posted September 23, 2011 at 8:51 am | Permalink

    Thanks, Robin, for this post – the film recommendation and also the encouragement to keep at it. We each have our spheres of influence, as Covey says in his Habits of Highly Effective People. Even if we feel our sphere is small, we have hopes that we can do something important in our community, starting a book group, organizing a food pantry, building a park, raising our children well.
    Obama, or any leader, for that fact, cannot create change on their own. They depend on each of us to pick up our piece of the challenge, and carry it through with “persistence and a good heart.”

  2. Posted September 24, 2011 at 3:08 pm | Permalink

    I enjoyed this movie so much. It’s probably my third or fourth favorite Kurosawa movie. That man could do more with black and white film than many of today’s people can do with technicolor, 3D, and computer animation. He was a genius.

    Really, we are all dying, just at a slower rate than Watanabe. Each of us should use our time to do useful things.

  3. Robin Bates
    Posted October 4, 2011 at 5:18 am | Permalink

    I’m interested in your other favorites, Amanda. Mine are Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Dersu Uzala, Kagemusha, Ran, Rashomon–actually, I’ve never seen one of his that I haven’t liked. And even when he just offers an idea that someone else makes, like the film Runaway Train, I find myself swept up.

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