Wednesday, June 06, 2012


Originally Written and Posted at on 11/14/07 w/ Additional Edits & Revisions.

Based on Leo Tolsoy's short story The Death of Ivan Ilynch, Ikiru is the story of a middle-aged bureaucrat whose lonely life is hit with devastating news that would make him change his life. In his remaining days, he would learn about what to do while his family and colleagues would come to terms over these changes. Directed by Akira Kurosawa and screenplay by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni, the film is an exploration on life and death set in a modern world. Starring Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe. Ikiru is a powerful and heartbreaking drama from Akira Kurosawa.

Kanji Watanabe has worked as a section chief of public affairs for 30 years where he's never done much in his life. Though he lives with his son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) and daughter-in-law Kazue (Kyoko Seki) in a traditional Japanese-style home, Kanji feels nothing has changed. Feeling ill from a stomach pain where he's forced to miss work for the first time in 30 years, he gets some grim news about his condition as he is suffering from stomach cancer with a chance to live for six months to a year. Shocked by the news, Kanji returns home to accidentally overhear Mitsuo and Kazue talking about getting a modern home of their own forcing Kanji to recall the life he had with his wife some years ago. Upset over what is to come, Kanji realizes that his life isn't any good with little to show for as he returns to work dealing with chaos in his officer over a group of women complaining about a mosquito-infested cesspool in their neighborhood.

After talking to a novelist (Yunosuke Ito) at a bar who sympathizes with Kanji, the two decide to go out on a night of a town where the fun doesn't last very long. Returning to work the next day, he meets one of his former employees in a young woman named Toyo (Miki Odagiri) who had just quit her job at the section office. The two become friends where he brings her to his home to the bafflement of Mitsuo and Kazue where they spend the day having fun where Kanji has a revelation about his life. After a lecture from his son over some money he spent, Kanji decides to go to Toyo for comfort where he reveals to her what is happening to him. Learning that the issue over the cesspool wasn't resolved by his office, Kanji decides to take matters into his own hands by turning the troubled cesspool into a park. Following it completion that led to his death, Kanji's friends and family try to come to terms with his behavior in his final days.

While death was a subject Kurosawa has often tackled, for the film's theme of Ikiru which means in Japanese, "to live". It's a film that is a mix of both optimism and cynicism. The film is about a man that is trying to deal with his impending death and eventually, finds redemption, inspiration, and fulfillment. That what goes on throughout the film's first two acts for about 100 minutes. Though it's presented in a slow, careful manner to describe the man's life in the first two acts through his meditative direction. Kurosawa's attention to this man and his journey becomes fascinating while recalling the events of his life that involved his already ungrateful, self-centered son. With Watanabe dealing with loneliness, he tries to find new life in both a second-rate novelist and a free-spirited young woman. He finds both its flaws and its beauty realizing that there is still time to do something.

Those 100 minutes that included opening narration definitely let the audience get into the mind and heart of Watanabe. Then, the film suddenly shifts for the next forty where suddenly, it changes. This is where the third act begins and it starts to feel like a different film. It involves Watanabe's wake and how his colleagues, family, and politicians deal with his final months. Watanabe appears in flashbacks as colleagues try to figure out why the sudden change and it becomes a mix of both cynicism and hope. The cynical part involves politicians including a deputy mayor wanting to put a political spin on Watanabe's contribution while his colleagues drunkenly deal with his motivations. While the shift might be abrupt, it works to convey the message that Kurosawa is trying to say. Even through his stylish yet meditative editing that included his trademark side-wipe cuts. The result is a solid yet entrancing film from Akira Kurosawa.

Cinematographer Asakazu Nakai brings some stirring images to the black-and-white photography that includes some wonderful shading shots of Shimura in his despair as well as wonderful close-ups and grayish colors to convey one of the film's bleakest sequences. Nakai's photography is exquisite, notably for one of the film's final scene where a tracking shot unveils the final moments of Watanabe's life. Production designer So Matsuyama does great work in creating the crowded look of Watanabe's office that is filled with loads and loads of paperwork as well as the traditional, Japanese home that he lived in that is done better in the third act.

Sound recordist Fumio Yanoguchi does some fantastic work in capturing the world of modern Japan during the scene of Watanabe going out with the novelist to unveil Japan in its post-war era. Music composer Fumio Hayasaka creates a very melodic, melancholic score to convey the sadness and redemption of Watanabe with flowing arrangements and notes that is very dream-like with the soundtrack including a song sung by Shimura himself.

The film's cast is brilliant with performances from Minosuke Yamada, Kamatari Fujiwara, and Toranosuke Ogawa as Watanabe's colleagues while Nobuo Nakamura is great as the slimy deputy mayor who had hoped to gain credit for Watanabe's work. Makoto Kobori is good as Watanabe's brother and Kumeko Urabe as Watanabe's sister-in-law who had hoped he would find a new woman in his life. Masao Shimizu is excellent as the doctor who tells Watanabe of his fate while reveling in the cynicism of the man's fate. Yunosuke Ito is great as the novelist who takes Watanabe on a night on the town sympathetic to his fate and failures.

Kyoko Seki is good as Mitsuo's wife who shares her husband's desire for a new home but is amazed by his attitude towards his father. Nobuo Kaneko is great as Mitsuo, the self-centered, selfish son who is unaware of his father's illness until the end as he is forced to face himself. Miki Odagiri is great as the spirited Toyo, the young woman who befriends Watanabe as she points him into the direction his life is supposed to lead while dealing with her own issues as a young woman.

Takashi Shimura, one of Kurosawa's regular actors appearing in many of his films, gives one of his most touching and powerful performances. Shimura's subtle, restrained performance as a man facing death shows that it doesn't have to be dramatized. One of Shimura's most notable features is his eyes. The eyes are a big part of the story to convey his sadness and regrets as he starts off very slow and sad only to find some happiness as he smiles and laughs. Shimura's performance is just powerful right to the end of the film as he is truly one of the most overlooked actors in cinema in comparison another Kurosawa regular, Toshiro Mifune.

Ikiru is an inspiring and mesmerizing film from Akira Kurosawa that features a magnificent performance from Takashi Shimura. The film is definitely one of Kurosawa's hallmarks for the way he explores the modern world as well as big themes about life and death itself. While it may not have the entertainment value of his samurai films, it is still a great introduction to the way Kurosawa can create a simple drama about a man changing his life and make it extraordinary. In the end, Ikiru is an intoxicating and uplifting film from Akira Kurosawa.

Akira Kurosawa Films: (Sanshiro Sugata) - (The Most Beautiful) - (Sanshiro Sugata Part II) - (The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail) - No Regrets on Our Youth - (One Wonderful Sunday) - Drunken Angel - (The Quiet Duel) - Stray Dog - Scandal (1950 film) - Rashomon - The Idiot (1951 film) - The Seven Samurai - (I Live in Fear) - Throne of Blood - (The Lower Depths (1957 film)) - The Hidden Fortress - The Bad Sleep Well - Yojimbo - Sanjuro - High and Low - Red Beard - Dodesukaden - Dersu Uzala - Kagemusha - Ran - Dreams (1990 film) - (Rhapsody in August) - (Madadayo)

© thevoid99 2012


Unknown said...

terrific review! I agree with what you say about the last 40 minutes. It does change in tone, were the character becomes a somewhat legend. I thought it could have been told differently, but it worked very well.Another fine Kurosawa film. Great writing!

thevoid99 said...

Thank you. When I first saw it, that abrupt change caught me off guard. Then playing the film in my head made realize that it actually worked. I want to watch it again. Hopefully get the Criterion DVD.

Chip Lary said...

I love this film. It's my favorite role of Shimura's. I would have a hard time picking between Ikiru and Throne of Blood as my second favorite Kurosawa film. (Seven Samurai being first).

thevoid99 said...

@Chip-I much prefer Throne of Blood due to its drama but Ikiru is the film that managed to grow on me over the years.

It's really one of the great and most uplifting films ever.

Chris said...

Didn't know was a shory story by leo tolstoy...Loved the film too, beautiful, powerful, timeless, and agree about the wonderful performance by Takashi Shimura, his eyes are indeed full of raw emotion. Can almost bring a tear to my eye.
Even though it’s about illness, the inspiring story is what is important. Reminded me a little of Fight Club, trying to find new meaning, when having an insignificant office job.

I'm not a great fan of samurai movies, do you know if Kurosawa made any other memorable films like this one, about people in everyday situations ?

thevoid99 said...

@Chris-I've only seen more than a 1/3 of Kurosawa's films as I'm set to re-post and re-edit more old reviews that I wrote back in

There's a great adaptation of Hamlet that he did called The Bad Sleep Well that is set in a modern period. The only other film set in a modern time of Kurosawa's that I've seen aside from this and Ikiru is High & Low. I recommend seeing these films as I'm going to watch another Kurosawa film later this month.

Chris said...

Thanks for those suggestions!