A masterpiece of Japanese cinema and one of Kurosawa’s best pieces is reviewed on the same site that looked at Ebola Syndrome
“Life is brief
fall in love, maidens
before the crimson bloom
fades from your lips
before the tides of passion
cool within you,
for those of you
who know no tomorrow”
What can I even say about this film that has not been said already?
Kenji Watanabe (Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura) is a section chief of a local public affairs bureau. His life, in the 30 years of service, has become monotonous and boring. His son, Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) and daughter-in-law both live with him, although it is apparent that Mitsuo has little time for him. When Watanabe learns he has months to live due to stomach cancer, he realises that his life has amounted to little, and decides to make amends. Depressed, he goes to a bar to drink away his sorrow, when he comes across a novelist, who describes himself as Mephistopheles (but a beneficial one, that won’t try to take his soul) and takes him out on the town.
While he does enjoy the company of someone else, the night ends up emphasising his sadness. Back home he meets a young co-worker, Toyo (Miki Odagiri), who needs his signature to approve her resignation. Her liveliness inspired him to spend time with her so he can find out what it is that keeps her going. But when even she tires of him, Watanabe realises he needs to do something more meaningful in the short time he has left.
Boy is that a quick and rushed run-through. See, Ikiru runs a hefty two and a half hours, which might be enough to turn some fans of quicker-paced movies away. But while some dramas can make a simple 90 minutes seem like an eternity, at no point does this drag on in any way. In fact, if it wasn’t for the final act being so structurally different, I probably never would have even noticed the time go by. This is a testament to the quality of work here, that your investment in Watanabe is so strong, that you could easily watch him for hours without knowing. Kurosawa’s varied styles of filmmaking keep everything going smoothly, never feeling repetitive.
The work of filmmaking veterans, Ikiru oozes style and every frame is perfectly put together. Kurosawa’s use of contrast, mirrors, transitions, and angles provides an excellent fusion of results which flawlessly emphasise Watanabe’s mental state and thoughts. Splitting the frame between Watanabe’s downtrodden expressions and Toyo’s energy is a great example of this, as is the frequent uses of fades – like the opening shot of Watanabe’s x-ray and his face, or the ending shots between his photograph and him on the swing. These devices provide excellent means of showing Watanabe’s place in the lives of those he’s closest to. Paired up with Takashi Shimura’s great work playing him – his slightly shifting body language throughout and his perpetual mope – and it’s easy to tell that at least on a technical side, Ikiru is without fault.
But where the film stands out is in its patient storytelling. The saga of Kanji Watanabe is more than just a sob story about someone who needs to get their life in order before they die, out of some out-of-nowhere sense of duty. Instead, he learns, and it’s definitely not instantaneous. His night out with the novelist sparked the desire to have fun, but it did nothing to give his life purpose. All it resulted in was a new hat and five minutes of bumming everyone out while he sang gondala no uta. Likewise, many of interactions with Toyo don’t really go far, at least not for some time. For a while, we watch him learn through other people; people he’s, in his job surrounded only by likeminded co-workers, never really had a chance to interact with before. When Toyo leaves to work in a toy factory, he asks her why she seems so lively, and it’s only her response – that she feels connected to the children who play with those toys – that triggers an answer in him. The tears and the emotions are earned, which make the final act all that much more poignant.
If it wanted to Ikiru could tell a satirical story about the emptiness and soullessness of bureaucracy and sometimes it does. The scene at the end where his co-workers bemoan their own inefficiency at the job and vow to do better, only to return to their usual state the following day, is an example of this. But Kurosawa and his three writers had other plans in mind, and told instead a simpler story, but one that keeps your invested emotionally until the very end.
Verdict: With pinpoint storytelling, directing and acting Ikiru is a near perfect example of exemplary filmmaking. Japanese cinema at its finest.
The Asian Cinema Critic’s Patented Ratings System
Overall entertainment: 10/10
Sex: How dare you even ask such a thing in this movie
Clockwork bunnies: tonnes
Tears: None, honestly.
Dust in my eyes: Lots
Also known as: 生きる (To Live)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writer: Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni
Takashi Shimura – Kanji Watanabe
Shinichi Himori – Kimura
Yunosuke Ito – Novelist
Miki Odagiri – Toyo Odagiri
Haruo Tanaka – Sakai
Minoru Chiaki – Noguchi
Bokuzen Hidari – Ohara
Kamatari Fujiwara – Sub-Section Chief Ono
Nobuo Nakamura – Deputy Mayor
Minosuke Yamada – Subordinate Clerk Saito
Makoto Kobori – Kiichi Watanabe
Nobuo Kaneko – Mitsuo Watanabe
Atsushi Watanabe – Patient
Noriko Honma – Housewife