I believe the legendary director Akira Kurosawa is best known to Americans for films like Seven Samurai (1954) and Rashomon (1950) set in feudal Japan. But he also made other critically acclaimed movies like Ikiru (1952), which is set in Tokyo around the time of its release. I had long heard of this film but never seen it, so I was delighted when Criterion Collection released it on DVD. I found Ikiru to be emotionally and intellectually engaging, and I think it deserves its reputation as a masterpiece of world cinema and should be included in any reasonable list of the one hundred greatest films ever made.
Ikiru is about a man who discovers he has a terminal illness, but the movie glosses over his physical suffering, instead focusing on the philosophical implications of his situation. The Japanese word ikiru translates into English as to live, and I see the film as being a thought-provoking meditation on what that verb should mean for a human being.
The central character is Kanji Watanabe, an aging man who works as a section chief at the incredibly bureaucratic Tokyo City Hall. For 30 years he has done little on the job except be present and shuffle papers. He is a lonely widower who is not close to anyone. A narrator tells us in voice-over that Watanabe is simply passing time without actually living his life. But he soon realizes he has an illness that will kill him within a few months.
One of the things that impresses me most about Ikiru is its unconventional narrative structure. The first hour and a half takes us in a fairly straightforward way through the Kafkaesque environment at City Hall, a night of debauchery in Tokyos vibrant amusement district, and a painful relationship between the dying Watanabe and a vivacious young woman. Then the movie leaps abruptly ahead five months to Watanabes wake, where the rest of the story unfolds like a mystery. We learn in flashbacks what Watanabe did during his last five months and some intriguing details about his death.
In the role of Kanji Watanabe, Takashi Shimura gives one of the most memorable performances by an actor in any movie I have seen. Here Shimura plays an everyman, and his expressive face and body language perfectly capture for me the terminally ill petty bureaucrat. But to see why they call it acting, watch Seven Samurai, where Shimura portrays Sambei, a powerful warrior who leads the band of heroes that gives the film its title.
Kurosawa is famous for his visual style, and its the images in Ikiru that stay with me: a jammed dance floor in a nightclub filled with a sea of dancers swaying to Latin music; Watanabe watching a toy bunny hop across a tea-room table; the face of a City Hall bureaucrat disappearing behind stacks of paperwork. But for me, one of the most moving scenes in all of cinema is the one near the movies end where Watanabe, alone in a small playground, swings to and fro amidst gently falling snow, softly singing Life Is Brief.
Even at first viewing Ikiru makes perfectly good sense, but I believe it is open to more than one interpretation. The ending is in some ways bleak: It looks as though Watanabe had no lasting impact on City Hall and before long he will be forgotten. On the other hand, one poor Tokyo neighborhood is slightly better because of his efforts. But I think the most important idea in the film is that Watanabe did manage to do something he found meaningful for a brief period, and it was only during that time that he could properly be said to live.
The two-disc DVD set comes with some worthwhile extras, and I have listed them below.
Selected Special Features:
- Two-Disc Set
- Full-Screen (1.33:1)
- Japanese Monaural
- English Subtitles
- Scholarly Feature-Length Audio Commentary by Kurosawa Expert Stephen Prince
- Documentary Featuring Interviews With Kurosawa on Film Sets (81 min.)
- Documentary on Ikiru (41 min.)
- Original Theatrical Trailer
- 8-Page Booklet Containing Print Essay by Donald Richie