IKIRU: “To Live” as God’s Mask

IKIRU: “To Live” as God’s Mask January 30, 2016

There were many interesting artistic choices in this film. Some of the techniques seem very advanced for the 1950s, although of course some of the cuts are sudden, and some of the style is uneven. In many ways, this film hits us with all kinds of different images, surprising us and making us wonder what to expect next from the filmmaker. Sometimes it catches us by surprise with its quietness and reflectiveness, forcing us to slow down our fast-paced lives and pay attention.

For me, one of the most interesting artistic choices in this film was found in the imagery of the stairs. The stairs are used as a barrier between Watanabe and his son, vividly portraying the distance between the two. Climbing that distance seems arduous and impossible, much as finding intimacy between father and son also seems impossibly difficult.

Equally fascinating is Kurosawa’s decision to have the wake for Watanabe occur only a little past the halfway point in the film. From that point, everything is in narration by those who knew Watanabe and in flashback. Rather than giving us long scenes of the happenings in Watanabe’s life, we are treated to very brief snapshots of his epiphany and his new dogged pursuit of service to neighbor. Because redemptive change in a character is very difficult to portray in a believable way in film, this artistic choice serves the story well. The snapshots and the movement backward in time disrupt the narrative flow we’ve come to expect (and, paradoxically, disbelieve) in works of screen. Because we are working backward from death, we are not deceived into thinking this is a happily-ever-after tale. And Kurosawa also allows Watanabe to retain much of his weird eccentricity so that we are not led to believe that he has turned into another person entirely. He is the same person but reborn.

This film made me think about the Lutheran teaching on vocation. Martin Luther taught that it is not only the people who work in public church ministry (such as priests, pastors, and missionaries) who are called by God to their work. Rather, the ordinary work done in service of neighbor by ordinary people is deeply important and is also the calling of God. This teaching is based on the priesthood of all believers, taught in I Peter 2:9.

Gene Veith put it this way in a wonderful essay on vocation:

This is the doctrine of vocation. God works through people, in their ordinary stations of life to which He has called them, to care for His creation. In this way, He cares for everyone—Christian and non-Christian—whom He has given life.

Luther puts it even more strongly: Vocations are “masks of God.” On the surface, we see an ordinary human face—our mother, the doctor, the teacher, the waitress, our pastor—but, beneath the appearances, God is ministering to us through them. God is hidden in human vocations.

In Ikiru, true life is not found in power, fame, or worldly accomplishment (the Walter White path); true life, rather, is found in simple, dedicated service to one’s neighbor. Watanabe may not have done something that will get him in the history books for all time, but he has taken his influence, skill, and power and turned them into tools to make a difference in the lives of those who really need his help. Though most of us won’t turn into Walter Whites–violent drug lords–all too many of us buy into the flaws of his worldview. We believe that our lives don’t matter unless we dominate, unless we are powerful or “important.” Or we might buy into the George Bailey flaw of thinking, pitying ourselves and believing that our efforts are making no difference in the world. Watanabe challenges us to take the time and the influence we have and to do small things well for our neighbors. And Luther reminds us that as we do so, we are the very “masks of God,” God’s loving, enfleshed presence to our neighbors.

Did you find yourself relating to Watanabe in any way? How so? If not to him, did you find yourself in some other character in the film?

When you think about the purpose of your life, what goals or guidelines do you establish for yourself in terms of how you’ll know it has been a success?

Do you ever get bogged down by bureaucracy, discouragement, or frustration with the intransigence of evil? How do you deal with your frustrations when it seems like your efforts are but a small drop in the bucket?

Since all of us are finite, how do decide which problems in society to work on and to try to make a difference with? How do you decide in what way to use the hours you are given?

Photo source:


Community discussion guidelines:

Because this is a Christian blog, the things I’m talking about will obviously be topics that people feel strongly about in one direction or another. Please keep in mind that this is a place for substantive, respectful, constructive conversation. All perspectives are welcome to discuss here as long as all can treat each other with kindness and respect. Please ignore trolls, refuse to engage in personal attacks, try not to derail the conversation into divisive rabbit trails, and observe the comment policy listed on the right side of the page. Comments that violate these guidelines may be deleted. Vulgar remarks may result in immediate blacklisting. For those who clearly violate these policies repeatedly, my policy is to issue a warning which, if not regarded, may lead to blacklisting. This is not about censorship, but about creating a healthy, respectful environment for discussion.

P.S. Please also note that I am not a scientist, but a person with expertise in theology and the arts. While I am very interested in the relationship between science and faith, I do not believe I personally will be able to adequately address the many questions that inevitably come up related to science and religion. I encourage you to seek out the writings of theistic or Christian scientists to help with those discussions.


Browse Our Archives