Kanji Watanabe is a middle-aged man who has worked in the same monotonous bureaucratic position for thirty years. His wife is dead and his son and daughter-in-law, who live with him, seem to care mainly about Watanabe’s pension and their future inheritance. At work, he’s a party to constant bureaucratic inaction. In one case, a group of parents are seemingly endlessly referred to one department after another when they want a cesspool cleared out and replaced by a playground. After learning he has stomach cancer and less than a year to live, Watanabe attempts to come to terms with his impending death. He plans to tell his son about the cancer, but decides against it when his son does not pay attention to him. He then tries to find escape in the pleasures of Tokyo’s nightlife, guided by an eccentric novelist whom he has just met. In a nightclub, Watanabe requests a song from the piano player, and sings “Gondola no Uta” with great sadness. His singing greatly affects those watching him. After one night submerged in the nightlife, he realizes this is not the solution.
The following day, Watanabe encounters a young female subordinate, Toyo, who needs his signature on her resignation. He takes comfort in observing her joyous love of life and enthusiasm and tries to spend as much time as possible with her. She eventually becomes suspicious of his intentions and grows weary of him. After convincing her to join him for the last time, he opens up and asks for the secret to her love of life. She says that she does not know, but that she found happiness in her new job making toys, which makes her feel like she is playing with all the children of Japan. Inspired by her, Watanabe realizes that it is not too late for him to do something significant. Like Toyo, he wants to make something, but is unsure what he can do within the city bureaucracy until he remembers the lobbying for a playground. He surprises everyone by returning to work after a long absence, and begins pushing for a playground despite concerns he is intruding on the jurisdiction of other departments.
Watanabe dies, and at his wake, his former co-workers gather, after the opening of the playground, and try to figure out what caused such a dramatic change in his behavior. His transformation from listless bureaucrat to passionate advocate puzzles them. As the co-workers drink, they slowly realize that Watanabe must have known he was dying, even when his son denies this, as he was unaware of his father’s condition. They also hear from a witness that in the last few moments in Watanabe’s life, he sat on the swing at the park he built. As the snow fell, he sang “Gondola no Uta”. The bureaucrats vow to live their lives with the same dedication and passion as he did. But back at work, they lack the courage of their newfound conviction.