Ikiru: The Criterion Collection
Over the image of an x-ray transparency, a narrator intones, "This stomach belongs to the protagonist of our story. At this point, our protagonist has no idea he has this cancer." In the hands of Hitchcock, this could be the set-up for a nastily macabre thriller, but when put into service by Akira Kurosawa, it is instead the preamble for a rambling lament of a life nearly wasted, only to be redeemed in its closing hours. Death and the process of dying were never far from Kurosawa's thoughts; after all, his older brother, whom he adored, committed suicide at a young age, while, years later, the director would attempt to take his own life after a string of box office failures in the late 1960s. It's possible, then, that this morbid obsession informed Kurosawa's unusually mature insights into life's winding down as he penned Ikiru (1952) with frequent collaborators Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. What's certain is that, in terms of story, this is the most structurally audacious work of the master filmmaker's career; a deceptively conventional, moment-to-moment trudge through Watanabe's lonely, post-diagnosis depression that, a little more than halfway through, turns into a post-mortem examination of his final five months, where his sudden achievements are both celebrated and diminished by his mourners. Whereas Rashomon's narrative inventiveness was mostly an intellectual exercise (and a brilliant one at that), Ikiru's fragmented tale adds unexpectedly rich layers of emotional resonance to what could've been an unpleasantly blunt wallow in despair. But while Ikiru is an emotional tour de force, it's also too long (the night-out-on-the-town sequence seems to drag on needlessly after the point has been made), and too on-the-nose to be placed among the master's best. This is not to say that subtlety has ever been a characteristic trait of Kurosawa's films, but his finest works The Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and Yojimbo benefit from a cleanness of narrative that, due to its rigorous carpe diem rhetoric, eludes Ikiru. It needs to be light on its feet, but, once its point is made, the picture, rather than fade out, hangs around as if to gawk at its own effectiveness. By film's end, Kurosawa has left little doubt as to what he really means by the titular phrase "To Live." As a result, despite his undeniably brilliant artistry, the director comes off at times like a motivational speaker. The Criterion Collection presents Ikiru in a decent full-frame transfer (1.33:1 OAR) from a source-print that's probably as cleaned up as can be expected (there are scratches, but they're not too distracting), while the Dolby Digital 1.0 audio is fine. Extras on this two-disc set include a feature-length commentary from Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince, the documentary A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies, a segment on Ikiru from the series Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create, and the theatrical trailer. Dual-DVD keep-case.