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Ikiru: The Criterion Collection

Home Vision Entertainment

Starring Takashi Shimura

Written by Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni, and Akira Kurosawa
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

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Review by Clarence Beaks                    

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.

Though the viewer is afforded a decidedly extreme introduction of Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) with the very first shot, this peculiar intimacy is immediately offset by the proceeding shot of the lifetime bureaucrat's chilly exterior. Kurosawa further challenges the audience's empathy by only identifying Watanabe initially with the inhuman moniker "Public Affairs Section Chief". As the narrator elaborates on the protagonist's uselessness in an almost mean-spirited and dangerously heavy-handed fashion, the story segues into an amusing montage of the buck-passing world that is city government, which is illustrated by a group of local women getting bounced around from department to department seeking assistance in getting an unhealthy neighborhood cesspool filled in. Finally fed up with this casually tyrannical fecklessness, they lash out at the pencil-pushers, calling them "Time Killers."

It's at the doctor's office the following day that Watanabe will discover that 30 years of killing time has finally caught up with him. Though his intestinal distress is first diagnosed as nothing more than an ulcer, a callous and nosy patient (Atsushi Watanabe, the coffin-maker from Yojimbo) in the waiting room hips Watanabe to the routine (which, ironically, is just another form of bureaucratic cruelty), whereby the doctors alter their assessment as the individual's condition worsens. Blindsided by the sudden knowledge of his impending death, Watanabe staggers home to seek solace from his son and daughter-in-law; however, outside of his retirement funds, neither has any use for him. He is alone, and, suddenly, every object in the house is freighted with memories of his misspent life, all of which is compounded by the revelation of the tragic early loss of his wife that forced him to raise his son by himself.

Desperate for comfort, Watanabe ends up at a bar, where he attempts to drown his sorrow and (as it poignantly manifests itself on Shimura's scrunched visage) acutely physical pain through drink. Given his condition, it's lousy company, but when he makes the acquaintance of an indulgent novelist (Yunosuke Ito) who none-too-subtly describes himself as a kind-hearted Mephistopheles, Watanabe is given the chance to experience first-hand the Dionysian pleasures of the fast life. At one point, their nightly peregrination deposits them in a nightclub done up as an ersatz American speakeasy, replete with boogie-woogie pianist and dancing floozies. It's here that Watanabe warbles "Life is Brief," which will serve as the character's theme throughout the rest of the picture. And it's a heartbreaking rendition, too, as Shimura's voice slowly breaks until there's little left but a quivering rasp. In close-up, he's a man face-to-face with the abyss, with the flickering lights in the black of his eyes threatening to be snuffed out at any minute.

Such swiftness would be sweet mercy for Watanabe, but it is not to be. Alas, it appears that this will be a slow march to the grave; that is, until he encounters the cheery young Toyo (Miki Odagiri), one of his charges from the Public Affairs office, by chance on the street. At first, she just needs him to lend his seal to her resignation letter, but when she learns of her stiff boss's gallivanting, she's fascinated by him, and a platonic friendship ensues. Amusingly, Watanabe's son and daughter-in-law view Toyo as a gold-digger, and they berate him for being bamboozled so easily. Indeed, as they spend more time in each other's company, there's a sense that Watanabe's interest may extend to something sexual in nature, but it's the realization that her new day-job entails the actual creation of a tangible product that diverts his affections, and serves as his purpose-instilling epiphany. He may not be long for this world, but Watanabe is suddenly reinvigorated; ergo, he returns to work to take on the problem of the cesspool, determined to wear down the bureaucracy that deadened his soul for the better good of the public.

*          *          *

This is where Kurosawa elects to sever the narrative, jumping forward to Watanabe's wake where his bereaved colleagues share anecdotes of the deceased's quixotic dedication to filling in the cesspool, while puzzling over why he froze to death at the park that was erected over it. At first, they deny him his rightful credit if only because the actual creation of the park was outside his auspices. But as their stories are joined together, they experience their own epiphany: Watanabe actually knew of his sickness, and intended the park to be his selfless farewell. Suddenly, these lazy office stiffs are falling over each other in hysterics, pledging that they, too, will live their life with renewed purpose as Watanabe did.

The subtle kick in the gut is, of course, that everyone returns to buck-passing the following day, but this is expected. What lingers in memory are the two moonlit shots — one through a jungle-gym and the other straight-on — of an emaciated Watanabe swinging peacefully in the park, singing his theme as he succumbs to the sickness that spurred him to action and gave his life meaning.

The simple, tear-jerking perfection of that moment is likely responsible for eliciting those many claims of "masterpiece", but while Ikiru is an emotional tour de force, it's also too long (the night out on the town 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. This two-disc set is not necessarily rich in extras, but what's there is mostly edifying enough to justify the deluxe treatment. Disc One offers a feature-length commentary from Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. Prince ably and engagingly discusses the film's clearly conveyed themes and how it fits into the master's oeuvre, but he's most interesting when providing historical context. For instance, Prince explains how the cesspool dilemma that brackets Watanabe's story is meant to be representative of the poor health conditions in postwar Japan that preyed primarily on the country's youth. Prince is also helpful for the way he identifies Kurosawa's changing stylistic preferences, noting how Ikiru's expressive deep focus photography is something of a departure for the filmmaker, who would go on to favor telephoto lenses in his subsequent works.

Disc Two features two documentaries, the longest of which, A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies (81 min.), is produced by Kurosawa Production Inc, and, therefore, tends toward hagiography. Comprising mostly behind-the-scenes footage from the "making-of" Rhapsody in August, this documentary gives the viewer a fine sense of Kurosawa's late-career creative process, which, while fascinating, doesn't fully apply to the way he worked in his prime — his advanced age has forced him to delegate far more responsibility than he would've ceded in the past. Still, there are plenty of profound insights offered up by the always-quotable director, which makes it worthwhile viewing for fans and aspiring filmmakers alike.

The second feature is a segment on Ikiru from the series Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create (41 min.), which is twice as illuminating at almost half the length of the previous documentary. Of course, it helps that its focused entirely on Ikiru, but there's a clear difference in tone. Though still unavoidably in awe of its subject, this feature is far less reverential, allowing the viewer to get a better sense of the brilliant, but sometimes volatile and controlling, filmmaker. Most indispensably, it features excerpts from an interview with Takashi Shimura, who discusses his fierce commitment to the role (which, by production's end, left him with a stomach ulcer of his own), as well as Kurosawa's directorial technique.

— Clarence Beaks

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