(Warning: Spoilers ahead)
Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is an unlikely hero. A perpetually hunched over, unremarkable man in late middle age, he’s spent the past thirty years working in civil service and is now the section chief of the Department of Public Affairs. His job — which appears to consist of little more than stamping documents and directing citizens to other departments so that he doesn’t have to deal with their concerns — is one of meaningless busyness, accomplishing nothing of significance to himself or to anyone else. “He might as well be a corpse,” says the rather contemptuous narrator of Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru. In fact, before introducing Watanabe himself, the narrator introduces something more interesting: an x-ray of his stomach. Although he doesn’t know it yet, he has cancer, and in all likelihood he’ll be dead within a year.