Cats and Theories
a blog by coticheque
a blog by coticheque

Akira Kurosawa and the meaning of life

In August, I attended one local film festival, which had a retrospective of Akira Kurosawa as a part of this year’s program. The most outstanding movie shown on the festival was Kurosawa’s 1952 film titled ‘Ikiru’ (生きる – ‘to live’). The plot is based on the story of Leo Tolstoy – ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’, adapted to the Japanese reality (let’s never forget that Tolstoy is ultra-great, while Dostoevsky is overrated). The movie of Kurosawa lasts for 143 minutes, and dwells on the topic of human life and its meaning. Surprisingly, it perfectly reaffirmed my own views on the topic (mostly based on the philosophy of Hannah Arendt). But before we focus on the movie plot, let’s contemplate one interesting idea – what if the meaning of human life can be deduced simply out of its ontological context?

The fact that in 21st century there’re no longer any indisputable dogmas that determine the meaning of human life is maddening to many. Since all traditional values have been refuted long ago, we’re left with nothing else but the notion that life can have any meaning that you assign to it. Which is fine, but still sounds too general to most people to be actually helpful.

But thinking about the human condition per se, we can at least single out the following two facts.

Premise One:

First, what distinguishes anything organic from an inorganic matter is temporality. So the first hint that indicates direction where to search for meaning is the need, inherent to any living form, to overcome temporality, surpass death in one way or another.

But our civilization doesn’t seem overly concerned with the phenomenon of death, so many people are perfectly fine spending time in hedonistic pursuits, entertainment and other distractions from the fact that life is temporal. Which is fine, just I cannot imagine myself being that unbothered.

Premise Two:

Second, the comparison of humans with other organic life forms uncovers another hint. What distinguishes humans from plants and animals is their ability to make and utilize tools, create something with hands. The man-made realm, the civilization. Whether it’s something material, or, what’s more relevant in the 21st century – something intellectual in the sphere of culture. So that’s the second hint.

These two premises originate simply from the ontological context of human life. Their logical implication is that one of the natural human pursuits and a logical meaning to human life is to overcome mortality by creating something that would outlast one’s individual life. If you’re fine with purely biological reproduction – that’s the level of animals. Satisfactory to many, but not to all. So, if it’s a creation that has significance in the context of civilization – that’s the highest goal anyone can aim for.

If we were different animals, we would have had different pursuits. But we’re humans, we have language and the hands with opposed thumbs, and this whole extra-layer above nature that we call civilization and culture. So art, science and philosophy – that’s where to focus.

Now let’s get back to Akira Kurosawa.

In ‘Ikiru’, a city hall clerk – Mr. Watanabe – who works in the bureaucracy-ridden municipal department of parks and recreations, finds out that he only has 6 more months to live. Crushed by these news, he looks over his past life, finds it worthless, and seeks to regain what’s important until it’s too late. But how?

First, Mr. Watanabe encounters an eccentric bar owner who promises to show him ‘the real life’ and takes him for a tour through the best restaurants, bars and dancing clubs of Tokyo. The protagonist however finds himself unable to enjoy this hedonistic lifestyle seeing it only as a pathetic mindless distraction from the approaching death, the cover for hollowness and despair. How relatable! The topic of death is so overlooked by our society, that it always comes as a surprise and leaves people shocked. Calls to ‘enjoy life’, ‘have fun’ and ‘focus on positive’ only make sense after one embraces the essential finiteness of human existence. As Heidegger said: the authentic Dasein (human being) is grounded in death.

Being disappointed by hedonism and fun, Mr. Watanabe encounters a girl from his workplace – named Toyo. The girl is always glowing with energy and life, despite being so poor that she cannot afford to buy new stockings. Mr. Watanabe asks Toyo what’s the secret of being so drawn to life, and she shows him a toy rabbit – one of many hand-made toys she creates as a hobby, that brings joy to her, as well as hundreds of children around the country.

So a revelation strikes the protagonist – only through creating something that lasts can one deem one’s life meaningful. Mr. Watanabe realizes that he should leave a similar legacy, create something that will outlive him, and bring joy both to him through the process of creation, as well as to other people who may find it useful. So he takes a long and effortful journey through the circles of Japanese bureaucracy and manages to build a small park with a playground on the place of a former sewage dump – something that local residents demanded from the municipality for many years. In the end, Mr. Watanabe dies with a smile on his face – while sitting on a swinging set of the new beautiful park that he helped to build.

The moral of the story only reaffirmed my beliefs on what’s the ultimate goal of human life – to overcome finiteness of one’s existence by means of creative force, the most noble and fulfilling pursuit a human can have. And, as we have already seen in the beginning, what’s especially fascinating is that this conclusion is so universal that it can be derived purely out of the human condition itself.

I write about cats and theories. About the blog »