Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni
Stars: Takashi Shimura (Kanji Watanabe), Shinichi Himori (Kimura), Haruo Tanaka (Sakai), Minoru Chiaki (Noguchi), Miki Odagiri (Toyo Odagiri), Bokuzen Hidari (Ohara), Minosuke Yamada (Subordinate Clerk Saito), Kamatari Fujiwara (Sub-Section Chief Ono), Makoto Kobori (Kiichi Watanabe), Nobuo Kaneko (Mitsuo Watanabe), Nobuo Nakamura (Deputy Mayor)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1952
Country: Japan
IkiruInspired by both Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” and thoughts about his own mortality, Akira Kurosawa’s evocative and deeply moving Ikiru is about a middle-aged man whose learning that he has six months to live triggers in him the painful realization that he has not been living his life. For the past 30 years, he has worked as a section chief in the public affairs office of the government bureaucracy, dutifully stamping documents, but never actually accomplishing anything. He has perfected the fine art of stasis, which keeps him stable and secure, but not alive. There’s no vibrancy in his existence.

The first image we see in the film after the opening credits is an X-ray of the man’s stomach, and the giant white blot in the middle representing his cancerous stomach dominates our perception of him. He is a man who is being eaten away from the inside—literally and figuratively—and doesn’t know it yet. When he does find out, it becomes a catalyst for him to question everything that had come before and possibly change everything that comes after. The cancer in his stomach is the only true marker in his life that divides him from what he was and what he becomes. He finally heeds Plato’s advice that the unexamined life is not worth living, and part of the film’s inherent sadness is that it has taken him so long to do so.

The man, Kanji Watanabe, is played by Takashi Shimura, a great character actor who starred in 11 of Kurosawa’s films. In Ikiru, he hits all the right notes of melancholy and inner turmoil without once coming across as pathetic. Indeed, one of Ikiru’s chief strengths is the way in which it studiously avoids all the melodramatic pitfalls usually associated with movies about dying characters. Rather than slipping into disease-of-the-week theatrics, it maintains a vigorously spiritual outlook that emphasizes the story’s philosophical dimensions. It is, after all, not so much about a man who is dying as it is about a man who finally learns to live.

The first part of the film is told largely through Watanabe’s eyes and traces his slow realization of how he will deal with his eventual death by leaving his mark. The scenes in the hospital in which he learns about his cancer are devastating, particularly in the way the doctor, following Japanese medical protocol at that time, lies to Watanabe by telling him he simply has a stomach ulcer. Watanabe, having been told he would hear this from a man in the waiting room, literally crumbles before our eyes. When he goes home that night, he finds that he cannot talk to his son, Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko), because he and his wife are more concerned about how they will take advantage of Watanabe’s pension and life savings to buy themselves their own home (the fact that they talk about this without knowing he’s dying of cancer shows how he is essentially dead to them anyway). As Watanabe is a widower, his wife having died several decades ago, he is virtually alone in the world with the knowledge of his impending death.

He tries to find ways to “live,” including going out all night drinking with a writer he meets in a bar. Eventually, he finds solace in Toyo (Miki Odagiri), a feisty young woman who works in his office. His family misinterprets their relationships as a sexually desperate older man making advances on a pretty young woman, and even Toyo doubts the motives behind Watanabe buying her presents and taking her out to dinner. Eventually, he confides to her his situation, and it is she who gives him the idea that, to make his life worth something, he has to leave a mark—something that matters. In this case, Watanabe decides to make his job work by following through on a petition brought by a group of concerned mothers to turn a cesspool in their neighborhood into a children’s park. This park—so simple, yet so profound—becomes Watanabe’s legacy.

Had the film ended there, it would be a neat, effective, but ultimately simplistic lesson about the importance of living one’s life proactively. However, as he did in several of his films, Kurosawa split Ikiru in half so that we could see the film’s events through a different point of view. The second half of the film takes place after Watanbe’s death, almost entirely at his wake, where his colleagues weep for his loss and reminisce about the changed man who came into their office and, for six months, ensured that the park was completed. They declare that they will learn from his example and make their static government bureaucracy work for the people … yet it doesn’t. Once back in the office, it is business as usual, and when one of them tries to speak up, he is immediately put back in his place. The poetic final shot finds him walking by Watanabe’s park, which comes to represent the conflicting sides of humanity, the one side that can accomplish so much and the other side that is so mired in conformity and stasis that nothing significant can be accomplished.

Ikiru was made right after Akira Kurosawa had earned worldwide fame with his breakthrough film Rashomon (1950), which more than any other film was responsible for getting postwar Japanese cinema recognized in the West. The 1950s were Kurosawa’s most prolific period, as he was at the height of his talents, so it is not surprising that Ikiru is one of his most beloved works, both in Japan and abroad.

In terms of Japanese culture, the film plays as a sharp critique of the postwar bureaucratic structure imposed by the Allied occupation forces who were trying to bring democracy to the shattered country. The montage of wipes in which the mothers complaining about the cesspool are shuffled from one desk to another is a bitingly funny account of the impossibility of getting anything done in the government. Kurosawa’s impeccable framing of Watanabe in his office surrounded on all sides by towering bundles of papers and blank-faced assistants going about their daily routines suggests a kind of claustrophobia that is, to him, reassuring.

On a larger scale, though, Ikiru resonates with anyone who has ever felt that he or she isn’t doing enough in life. Watanabe is not just a particular character, but a reflection of the tendency of people everywhere to get comfortable in their rut, fearing that, if they make waves, they will lose all they have. That it takes his impending death to shake him out of his complacency is sad, but the film maintains a life-affirming, if ultimately ironic, view of his eventual redemption. Even if Watanabe’s last-minute reversal doesn’t do much to change the lives of those around him, it changed his life by giving it meaning, and that, the film argues, is what ultimately matters.

Ikiru Criterion Collection Blu-ray

Aspect Ratio1.37:1
AudioJapanese Linear PCM 1.0 monaural
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince
  • A Message From Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies documentary
  • Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create documentary
  • Original theatrical trailer
  • Essay by critic and travel writer Pico Iyer and a reprint from critic Donald Richie’s 1965 book The Films of Akira Kurosawa
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    Release DateNovember 24, 2015

    Since the original camera negative for Ikiru is lost, Criterion had to go to the next best source—a 35mm fine-grain master positive—for their new 4K transfer, and the results are quite fantastic. Compared to the 2004 Criterion DVD, the image is sharper, boasts finer detail, and has a more natural cinematic “feel.” It is also a bit darker with stronger contrast, which suits the film well. Criterion has done a beautiful job of maintaining the image’s filmlike appearance and the finest of details without losing the inherent grain structure, while also cleaning it up substantially using various digita restoration systems. There are virtually no nicks, scratches, or dirt to be found; the only evidence of age is some light scratching here and there. The original monaural soundtrack, presented in lossless Linear PCM, was mastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack print. It has also been given a digital scrubbing to good effect. It is understandably limited in scope, but dialogue and sound effects are clear and effective, which is especially important since Kurosawa did a great deal of work with Ikiru’s sound design to bring us into Watanabe’s world.

    Criterion’s Blu-ray maintains all of the supplements that were previously available on the 2004 two-disc DVS set. Film scholar Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, offers an invaluable screen-specific audio commentary in which he discusses in detail Kurosawa’s aesthetics and, even more importantly, crucial historical and cultural background about postwar Japan that will truly add a new layer of meaning for Western audiences—everything from the effect of the Allied occupational forces on Japanese bureaucracy to statistics on cancer. There are also two excellent documentaries. The first, A Message From Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies, is a feature-length documentary produced in 2000 that includes interviews with Kurosawa on the set of his later films. The second documentary is a 41-minute episode of the Japanese television series Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create that focuses on the production of Ikiru. It includes interviews with Kurosawa, script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, writer Hideo Oguni, actor Takashi Shimura, among others associated with the film’s production. Also included in are the original theatrical trailer and an insert fold-out with an essay by critic and travel writer Pico Iyer and a reprint from critic Donald Richie’s 1965 book The Films of Akira Kurosawa.

    Copyright ©2015 James Kendrick

    Overall Rating: (4)

    James Kendrick

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