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Critical Study of Ikuru and the Death of Ivan Ilyich Essay

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Updated: Nov 8th, 2019


Ikuru is a film in current Japan revealing the plight of Kanji Watanabe, a servant in public service who discovers he is on the brink of death since he is a victim of terminal cancer. Watanabe discovers that his life has lost meaning and wants to derive a meaning out of it within the few days that he has to live.

The lead character in this film who is Watanabe is similar to Ivan Ilyich who is a lead character in the novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Both characters reach a point of enlightenment in their lives and discover that they have never lived when they are almost dying. This essay will look at the points of enlightenment for both Watanabe and Ivan Ilyich.

Enlightenment Moment for Watanabe

The title of the film Ikiru is a Japanese word for life. The film consists of two sections one of them being a show of how useless the life of Watanabe has become. This is occasioned by his association with a group from the society that is fighting for unused piece of land with officials from the government.

The battle between this group and government officials leads to wastage of a lot of time as they deal with the complicated systems of law. The group is exposed to many frustrations until they are taken back to the starting point. By the time they are done with their struggles, the time of Watanabe being in office has expired and he begins endeavors of seeking treatment for his deadly medical condition (Jawayeera 3).

The futility of the life Watanabe has lived is explored through the relationship he has with his son when he finds out that he is suffering from cancer. The point of enlightenment for Watanabe is not very fruitful since it acts as a great failure.

When he becomes enlightened and discovers his condition, he starts looking for fulfillment in his remaining life and at this point he looks for a novelist. Watanabe wants the novelist to give him tips on what a good life encompasses and he is informed of some of the bad things in Japan that he is supposed to distance himself from.

The list of these vices includes dance places, drinking alcohol, clubs where strippers are found among other undesirable places. However much Watanabe tries to find solace in the teachings he gets from the novelist, life to him remains as unsatisfying as ever and his quest continues since he is now enlightened (Jawayeera 6).

The enlightenment of Watanabe continues when he is involved with a little girl working in his office. The young lady has approached Watanabe because she wants him to sign a document that will enable her move from her current job to a new job. This encounter with the young girl causes Watanabe to become obsessed with the young lady. Watanabe cannot express himself well and finds a lot of trouble with this little girl.

When Watanabe realizes that he has cancer, this turns out to be another turning point of enlightenment (Jawayeera 8). While in a bar, he reveals to a stranger that he really wants to spend good time only that he does not know how to utilize the money he has. The stranger agrees to take Watanabe to different places such as dance halls where he enjoys himself because he has known that life is short. In one of the clubs, he even requests a song that affirms this truth that has just dawned on him.

Watanabe had worked for many years at the city Hall but for all these years, he had not achieved anything. As the chief of his section in the office, he had piles of papers on his table and all he had to do was to stamp them. The opening shot in the movie is an enlightenment moment for Watanabe where it is found out that he has Gastric cancer but he does not know.

He just goes through his normal activities in life oblivious of any dangerous condition he might be suffering from. While in the office of his doctor, the enlightenment for Watanabe continues after a patient carelessly shouts that he is suffering from stomach cancer. When the doctor repeats the words of the other patient, Watanabe guesses that he has few days to live and becomes quiet and worried.

Enlightenment Moment for Ivan Ilyich

The death of Ivan Ilyich is a true portrayal of the people of Russia and their Society. Ivan Ilyich who is the hero in the story is an optimistic character who finds himself trapped in desires that later plunge him in a lot of suffering. He later tries hard to come out of the situations that have exposed him to great suffering by looking back at his past life.

The reader can identify with Ivan who is a young man from the middle class with a strong passion for success and an insatiable desire to be enlightened spiritually. He is engaged in a life of immensurable luxury which is very expensive. As the novel begins, we see the death of Ivan which is followed by revelation of the cynical nature of his wife and close friends.

Ivan lived a life of luxury until he was involved in an accident that caused injuries to him, an event that caused him to start serious introspection of his life. His life was deemed a life of propriety but after this incident, he only thinks of death. In the last moments of his life that is full of confusion, a ray of light eventually shines into his life.

The quest for selfish achievements in a world full of skeptical perspectives and the tragedy that can follow only emphasizes the need for embracing spirituality. In the last chapter of the novel, a clear explanation of how finally enlightenment came to Ivan is given.

The moment of enlightenment to Ivan occurs at once and its implication remains constant. Those who were present during his last moments explained that his suffering and pain was with him for additional 2 hours. He gradually stopped gasping as his sound subsided quietly and this signified an end to his mental suffering and physical pain that even the most qualified doctors had failed solve.

Ivan puts the final moments of his enlightenment in writing. He says that it became evident that what had tormented him for long without leaving was disappearing from all sides of his body. When Ivan dies, his colleagues mourn not because they are feeling a sense of loss but their happiness is that his death has created a vacancy that will be of professional gain to them.

The only person who seems to cover this kind of cynicism is Gerasim. Even his wife is not so much bothered by his death as she immediately starts calculating the pension she will get after the death of her husband (Tolstoy 120).

Ivan Ilyich did not take a single moment of reflection in his life till the moment he was staring death in the eyes. This turns out to be a moment of enlightenment for him especially after keenly looking at Gerasim who was a mere peasant and the only person who took care of him when he was about to die. Gerasim tries to explain Ivan the real meaning of life, something his wife and his closest friends had failed to explain to him.

Gerasim was very compassionate and served Ivan selflessly during his last days without complaining because he had accepted that death is an inevitable part of life. Ivan felt so good and at peace for having someone who comforted and took care of him during his last and important moment of enlightenment. He realizes that he had deprived himself something valuable in life, staying close to other people. He realizes that this is the true life and the life of materialism he had lived was false and only deceived him.

Ivan lived without ever questioning the value of the life he lived. As he dies, he considers himself of no worth and this is portrayed through the lives of those who are around him. For instance, his wife seems to blame him always because his sickness has been a bother to her while his daughter Lisa is uncomfortable with his sickness because it interferes with her social life.

They are not connected to the suffering that Ivan goes through but are only driven by self preservation. Their hatred grows as Ivan continues to deteriorate and this is a reflection of the kind of life he lived.

This is explained in the following direct quote from chapter 7 of the novel ,‘How it happened it is impossible to say because it came about step by step, unnoticed, but in the third month of Ivan IIyich’s illness, his wife, his daughter, his son, his acquaintances, the doctors, the servants, and above all he himself, were aware that the whole interest he had for other people was whether he would soon vacate his place, and at last release the living from the discomfort caused by his presence and be himself released from his sufferings.’ (Tolstoy 132).


The movie Ikiru opens with a low mood but towards the end of the movie there is a lively moment that tries to prevent the light from dying. Watanabe retires to his home and puts covers himself with a blanket as he cries bitterly. He regrets his life after the realization that he must die. However, what is most painful is not that he has to die but that he has never lived.

He confesses to the stranger that for all the years he has lived he has lived for nothing. Similarly, in the novel Death of Ivan Ilyich there is also a moment of enlightenment. Ivan Ilyich has lived a materialistic nature and never took time to reflect on his life. When he is very sick and nobody wants to be there for him, this is when he gets the assistance of a peasant known as Gerasimi. Just like Watanabe, he discovers that he had wasted his whole life and could not do anything about.

Works Cited

Jawayeera, Shan. Ikiru. Web. n.d. 01 August 2011.

Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. New York: Kessinger Publishing, 2004. Print

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