“How can I keep silent? How can I stay quiet?
My friend, whom I loved, has turned to clay,
my friend Enkidu, whom I loved has turned to clay.
Shall I not be like him, and also lie down,
never to rise again, through all eternity?”
– The Epic of Gilgamesh
Mortality is a deep wound that is forever embedded in the impenetrable depths of our human existence. No matter how advanced our scientific prowess, no matter how deep our understanding is of our cosmos, of our nature, of our world, the question remains, stifling our heart whenever we are in contemplation of the purpose or the meaning of our existence. The question is: “If one day we are destined to die, why then shall we live?” Indeed, why? The question has plagued us ever since the dawn of humanity, ever since the development of our self-awareness, of our consciousness.
The passage I quoted above is of the ancient mythical Babylonian hero, Gilgamesh’s sorrow when his friend Enkidu has died, which lead to his confrontation with his own finiteness, his own mortality. His awareness that one day he too shall fall six feet under was too painful, too unbearable, that he sought to search for a path to immortality (which is unsuccessful, and after which he finally embraced his own mortality, if I may say so). But what does this has to do with the movie that we are about to discuss today (i.e. “Ikiru”)?
“Ikiru” is a Japanese film that was made in 1954 (I am an old fashioned guy) by one of the greatest Japanese director alive, Akira Kurosawa. It depicts one of the most relevant issues that has since been labelled as a taboo topic in our contemporary society, namely that of death and dying. The title itself can be translated into “To Live”, and as Buddhism taught us, life and death are inseparable, they are like two sides of the same coin, therefore, as Sogyal Rinpoche stated elegantly in his marvelous book, “The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying”: “to learn how to die, is to learn how to live”.
The movie itself is about a government bureaucrat who “lived” his entire life in a mundane pace, filled with endless and yet worthless jobs, such as stamping on document papers in an office that never gets anything done. The main character, Mr. Watanabe, has such a banal life that he was secretly nicknamed “The Mummy” by everyone in his office. He also never get to connect with his son, which was all the more ironic, since it was his son whom he dedicated his entire life working for in order to bring his son up. He lived what French novelist and philosopher, Albert Camus, would call an “absurd life”, which is inherently lacking in meaning.
But all this was about to change when Watanabe went to the doctor because of constant stomach pains but instead found out, much to his astonishment, that he actually has terminal stage stomach cancer, and has only less than a year to live. He despaired and while he left the doctor’s office visibly shaken but without betraying any outburst of emotion, he cried painfully while he was at home and under his blanket. From here, we can briefly understand what German philosopher Martin Heidegger means in his monolithic book, “Being & Time”: “death is understood as an indefinite something, which, above all, must arrive from somewhere or other, but which is proximally not yet present-at-hand for oneself, and is therefore no threat”. What this basically means is that although we humans are fully conscious that one day we certainly will die and that we are but finite beings, we do not know when we are going to die. Hence, we schedule and live our lives as if we are going to live on indefinitely whilst not incorporating the fact of our mortality into our life (or as Heidegger will likely put it, we absorb ourselves with the hassles of “everydayness” just so we can put the idea of death behind our selves). As Japanese author Haruki Murakami once put it in his novel, “Hard-Boiled Wonderland”, “most of our activities are based on the assumption that life goes on”, and so it is only when the announcement was made of our impending death that this illusion of immortality and invulnerability was shattered into smithereens.
So, with the knowledge that he was going to die in the near future, Watanabe became disillusioned of his worthless job, and hence skipped it so that he could go out for some “fun” and finally “live” a life. He met a man at a bar and together they went to a nightclub, drank a lot of alcohol, danced and singed for a while (and here there was a moving scene where he sang a song distilled in pure sadness, which affected everyone in the nightclub), and then the night was over. To his credit, he realized that this mode of “living” was so artificial, so superficial, that he discarded all thoughts of continuing this lifestyle.
And here, he met his second turning point. After a young female subordinate encountered him the next day, he was instantly attracted to her hopeful and optimistic demeanor (not in a sexual way you pervert!). The girl, Toyo, was so vigorous, so enthusiastic, so energetic, so full of life, that Watanabe couldn’t help but became curious and thus became desperate to know her secrets. And so, he proposed that they went out for a few days, until the girl became exasperated by his forceful attempts, and it was only when she knew about Watanabe’s impending doom (which he kept secret from everyone else, including his son) that she confessed about her new job, which was to make toys for kids and led to a purpose in her life. Although she walked away afterwards due to her fear of a dying person, she threw a last message to Watanabe — “Make something.”
Awakened by this experience, Watanabe resorted to create something in his life, which was to turn a mosquito infested area in a neighborhood into a playground. He dedicated his remaining time to this last project, and with a ferocity such as never before seen in his life, he finally arrived at his goal. Here we can see a principle at work, mainly that a life with a purpose is a life well-lived. Viktor Frankl, the Austrian psychiatrist who survived the holocaust and who dedicated his entire life to helping others through his newly established logotherapy, wrote in his moving book, “Man’s Search for Meaning”: “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” And I never tire to quote another line from his book: “In some ways suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.” Here he was in accord with German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who once said, “To live is to suffer, to survive is to find some meaning in the suffering.” And Viktor Frankl also frequently quoted Nietzsche in saying that, “He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.”
Such was the conviction of the purpose of life, that it can inspire almost anyone, even in their last stages of life, to accomplish something, to achieve in something, even something that is seemingly small and insignificant to others. Irvin Yalom, an American psychiatrist, refers to this process as “rippling”, in which we create something that can be passed on to others and enlarge another’s life (in this case, it was the playground, which created the happiness of children in the neighborhood), so that we can transform our anxiety towards death into serenity and acceptance, and finally be able to face death with a new-found equanimity. Indeed, Yalom frequently used this quote in his books (“Love’s Executioner” & “Staring at the Sun”), that “though the fact, the physicality, of death destroys us, the idea of death may save us.”
The film actually paralleled the novella “The Death of Ivan Ilych”, written by one of the greatest literary figures, Leo Tolstoy. Indeed, the film was actually inspired by the book, as it featured similar main characters who are bureaucrats faced with impending doom, while only managing to live a life of purpose and tranquility in their last days of life. If one were to look at Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s (one of the pioneers in death and dying research) five stages of dying, one would find that both these characters traveled through this tumultuous process, while finally arriving at the last stage, which is the “acceptance” of death, of coming to terms with their own mortality. (Kubler-Ross’s model is somewhat cited as flawed as not all people traveled through all five stages: denial-anger-bargaining-depression-acceptance. And furthermore, most people do not arrive at the fifth and final stage – acceptance. But nonetheless, her model is still very much useful to understand the mentality of a dying person or those who are bereaved, thus it is still very relevant today, even after her own death. I encourage you guys to read her influential book, “On Death & Dying”, to find out more about the five-stage model. :D)
In an age where we constantly deny the relevance of death and the importance of giving optimal care towards those who are dying, we encounter a dilemma whereby we actually denied one of the most crucial aspects of what makes us what we are, that is, the mortality of humans. We cease to see death as an issue that needs serious contemplating, that we actually have no insight or even foresight to what we will encounter as the chapters of life turns to an end. Hence, many harbor deep anxieties toward our finitude, and yet we bury all these deep-seated issues underneath our busy everyday life. How many of us has encountered people who lived their lives solely to work, to indulge in sensuous pleasures, and totally ignore the question of dying, only to be shocked to face it one day in the future. I, as a Chinese who lives in a conservative family, am always baffled by the overreactions of my grandparents, aunts, and uncles whenever I brought up the topic of death whether on the dining table or in ordinary conversations. They will always say, “Choi! Don’t say that, it will bring about misfortune!” And this does not just happen in my family, as whenever I brought this subject up in front of my friends, the table will grow quiet, and the topic will suddenly change. Such is the excessive “taboo-ization” of death that pervades our community.
We are afraid of death because while we are so adapt at everything else, we are ignorant when it comes to death, this enigmatic presence that always floats around, seizing us when we let our guards down. We have to face death sooner or later, so why not prepare for it now while we have the means and the chances? Why don’t we discuss, analyze the prospect of death in order to familiarize ourselves with it? Be it through reading books or literature, watching movies (such as this one), listening to songs, participating in healthcare activities, volunteering in hospice movements, we can enhance our knowledge of death and dying, and acquaint ourselves with it. There is a common saying that we fear because we don’t understand.
I say the same goes for death too.
This is a movie that I have watched a few years back, but since then I have rewatched it countless times, and every time I finished it, the movie still never fails to move and inspire me (especially the final scene, which I will not spoil the experience for you), to make me reevaluate my present condition, to think about the future, and to make me want to achieve more. This is a film that truly delivers a life-changing message. I always tell others that they should not judge a movie based on where they are filmed, or in what language they are filmed in. One should not be intimidated by such prospects, as it is ultimately what a film delivers that matters the most. And this is the one film that I always suggested to others. It may be filmed eons ago, it may be filmed in Japanese, it may be black-and-white, but it truly is a film I value with all my soul.
And I hope that it will be of value to you too. 🙂
Some books that I recommend on this particular subject:
1. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross. (1997). On Death & Dying.
2. Irvin D. Yalom. (2009). Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death.
3. Sogyal Rinpoche. (2008). The Tibetan Book of Living & Dying (20th Anniversary Version).
4. Viktor E. Frankl. (2011). Man’s Search for Meaning (New Material Version).
5. Irvin D. Yalom. (2012). Love’s Executioner: & Other Tales of Psychotherapy (Basic Books).
6. Ernest Becker. (1997). The Denial of Death.
Some movies that I recommend on this particular subject:
1. Departures (Okuribito). (2008). Director: Yojiro Takita.
2. Dead Man Walking (1995). Director: Tim Robbins.
3. The English Patient (1996). Director: Anthony Minghella.
4. Million Dollar Baby (2004). Director: Clint Eastwood.
5. A Simple Life (Tao Jie). (2012). Director: Ann Hui.
6. Sophie’s Choice. (1982). Director: Alan J. Pakula.
(I don’t recommend “The Bucket’s List”, because well…. I don’t like it, as I personally feel it to be a shallow and cliched depiction of the process of death and dying, and the Jack Nicholson character is as close to someone you would call an “A*hole”. But, to each their own.)
And we made a video about death and dying too, “Mirage”
I know this looks like blatant self-promotion, but we can’t help it, hahaha 🙂