This was an excellent and sad film about a government bureaucrat named Kanji Watanabe who reevaluates the meaninglessness of his life after discovering he is dying of stomach cancer. He struggles to tell his son his medical diagnosis, has one wild night partying to experience all he has missed in life, and ultimately puts his final efforts in challenging the inflexible bureaucratic system by getting a park built. The film is unusual in that the protagonist is dead for the second half of the film and it is mostly his coworkers and family trying to understand the changes in his behavior, although there are a few flashbacks in these later scenes in which Watanabe appears.
It is a warning to live your life to a higher purpose and don’t waste the little time you have in a meaningless job where you do nothing useful for the world. Don’t assume people will appreciate your sacrifices for them, let alone understand them. At one point in the film, Watanabe justifies to a newly befriended female coworker his monotonous lifestyle as being for the sake of his son, but his coworker challenges this assumption, pointing out that his son never asked him to do this and may be entirely ignorant of this gesture. In other words, this decision about how he chose to lead his entire life and its rationalization might not mean the same thing to his son that it does to Watanabe. Indeed, later during Watanabe’s funeral this idea is revisited as his coworkers try to discover the deeper meaning of the changes they saw in Watanabe and his obsession with the park. In addition to the philosophical speculations about reflecting on the meaning of our actions, the film offers an unflattering portrait of bureaucracy. The film strikes a nice balance between exploring pitfalls of bureaucracy in general and bureaucracy as part of Japanese culture. The Japanese cultural elements play into the bureaucratic structure, particularly during the funeral of Watanabe, when all the bureaucratic chiefs of the various departments act sycophantic towards the deputy mayor and offer him all the credit for the park as a way of honoring a superior (despite the flashbacks revealing the deputy mayor initially opposed it when Watanabe brought the idea to him).