This film was very important for Kurosawa, being both an amibitious picture of contemporary Japan and his own personal meditation on the nature of death. To contemplate death on a serious level - as Kurosawa does - is to examine the meaning of life, to determine what it is in a person's life that justifies his being able to die. For Kurosawa to live is to act. It is the act that one chooses to perform and how one acts that gives meaning to one's life and, consequently, defines one's death.
In Ikiru a minor government official learns that he has cancer and is going to die in six months. The official, Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), is profoundly shaken by this knowledge and begins to reject his past life and the unquestioning acquiescence with which he accepted his previous fate. Gradually he begins to realize that he must act - that he must do something before he dies - in order to give significance to what is left of his life. Quietly, patiently, and with incredible strength of will he engages in a struggle with the bureaucracy that has engulfed him for the past twenty-five years. He takes a forgotten proposal for a public park and single-handedly forces it through to completion.