Kanji Watanabi is Section Chief of the Tokyo Public Affairs Department. His job is to stamp each piece of paper that passes across his desk to indicate that he has handled it. He’s not supposed to accomplish anything in this job: whatever needs doing is by definition somebody else’s responsibility: the buck passes from department to department until it finally gets lost in the paperwork.
Very early in the film Kurosawa shows us Mr. Watanabi’s stomach X-ray, revealing a cancer that will kill him in six months. This revelation changes Watanabi’s life. Actually it brings him back to life, since he’s been all but dead for the thirty years he’s been a minor governmental functionary — before, during and after World War Two. But now that he’s alive, what should he do? He comes across a ne’er-do-well “novelist” in a bar who takes him out on the town: gambling, night clubs, women, a new hat. But for Mr. Watanabi that’s not living. He can’t bring himself to go back to the office, so when he leaves the house every morning as usual he wiles away the hours just walking around town. He tries to tell his son about his death sentence and his existential crisis, but the son is too worried about the father squandering his inheritance on loose women to listen. Toyo Odagiri, a girl who works in the department, tracks down the Section Chief to get him to stamp her letter of resignation. Attracted by her youthful vivacity, Watanabe attaches himself to Toyo, taking her to tea, on walks, to dinner. She confesses that she had a nickname for him: The Mummy. He’s stunned, then he laughs: yes, you’re right, he tells her.
For several nights this goes on until finally she tells him “no more.” He tracks her down at her new job at a factory – it hardly seems like a more appealing option than the city bureaucracy. She sends him away, then reconsiders – once more, then that’s the end. They go to the tea house (again), where after some desultory and silent sitting he proposes they take a walk (again). Toyo can’t stand it any more; she tells Watanabe she thinks he’s a creep. Keep your old man’s infatuation, she tells him, but leave me alone. No, that’s not it, he insists. He mutters and stumbles in his usual way, until finally:
“…in other words, why are you so incredibly alive? You’re just so alive. That’s why I’m envious. This old mummy envies you. Before I die I want to live one day just like you do. I’ll live that way before I die. Until I’ve done it, I can’t just give up and die. In other words, I just want… I just want something to… I want to do something. But it’s just that… I don’t know what. But you do know. No, maybe you don’t, but you… No, tell me how I can be like you.”
“But all I do is work and eat.”
“And what else?”
“That’s all. I mean it. All I do is make these little things.” Toyo takes from her purse a toy white bunny. She winds it up and it hops across the table toward Watanabe. She grabs it and does it again. “Even making these things is so much fun. Making them, I feel like I’m playing with every baby in Japan. Why don’t you try making something too?”
Watanabe is disconsolate. It’s too late. Besides, what can he possibly make at the Public Affairs Department? Then, suddenly, he’s struck by something. Maybe it’s not too late for me. Yes, I can do something there – if I have the will. Grasping the toy rabbit in his hand he leaves Toyo in the tea house, a man possessed of new resolve.
And sure enough, he finds the will to push one small project through the governmental bureaucracy: a city playground, built on reclaimed land over what had been an open sewage cesspool. Mr. Watanabe has to hand-carry the paperwork from department to department, all the way to the Deputy Mayor himself, in order to get the project budgeted and the work accomplished. He dies one snowy night in the new park — the policeman who saw him before he died said he had looked so happy sitting there on a swing, singing softly to himself. The Deputy Mayor tries to take credit for the playground – re-election is coming up, after all – but the neighborhood women come to Watanabe’s wake to light incense and mourn the man who they know is the one responsible.
The windup toy rabbit that Watanabe carried away from the teahouse was one among countless others, indistinguishable and trivial – not unlike the post-war Japanese industrial workers making cheap consumer goods for world markets. Watanabe was insensate, non-communicative, inert — as if he had died in the War, enshrouded like a mummy in the tomb that Japanese society had become for those old enough to remember the old glories and aspirations. The toy rabbit was the portal that reanimated the corpse that Watanabe had become, transforming his mindless and trivial labor into something meaningful. Within the alienating and depersonalized bureaucracy Watanabe was able to find a way to make something. It may have been a small something, but it wouldn’t have happened without him. The toy rabbit was the portal from structural determinism to personal agency, from the death of the old self-contained and stagnant Japan to its revitalization as active participant in the modern world.