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IKIRU

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Takashi Shimura, Miki Odagiri, Nobuo Nakamura, Yunosuke Ito
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Audio: Japanese 1.0
Subtitles: English
Video: Black & white, full-frame 1.33:1
Studio: Criterion
Features: Commentary, trailer, two documentaries, essay
Length: 143 minutes
Release Date: January 6, 2004

"I think of ceasing to be...and it is from these thoughts that Ikiru came."  - Akira Kurosawa

Film ****

Akira Kurosawa is, by any standard, one of the finest directors the world of cinema has ever produced.  A true auteur, Kurosawa not only directed numerous classic films but also co-scripted and edited them, too.  He was fascinated with the visual potential of the moving picture and constantly strove to create cinematic works that would express his love for beautiful imagery.  It is no surprise then that many of his films (Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, Ran, just to name a few) are numbered among the finest films ever created.

Ironically though, Kurosawa was somewhat under-appreciated in his native Japan.  After the 1960's, he found acquiring funds for his films to be increasingly difficult.  One criticism from Japanese critics at the time was that Kurosawa's films were not "Japanese" enough (that honor was reserved for Kurosawa's contemporary, the master director Yasujiro Ozu), and Kurosawa's critics felt that he was too influenced by Western culture.  Considering that several of Kurosawa's most famous films were either revisions of Shakespearean plays or were heavily influenced by (and later re-made into) Hollywood westerns, these critics may have had a point.  Yet, it seems petty and inconsequential now to lament Kurosawa's films for not being "Japanese" enough.  Rather, they should be celebrated for what they are - innovative expressions of an artistic vision that has seldom been equaled in the history of film.  Whether evoking images of clashing samurai or feudal warlords, Kurosawa's best films possessed a richly cinematic texture that has stood the test of time.  Kurosawa's background was in painting, a fact which is readily apparent even in a "lesser" Kurosawa film such as Dreams (a wondrous smorgasbord of colors and technical brilliance built around dream images).

The film that initially brought international fame to Kurosawa was, of course, his 1950 masterpiece Rashomon.  Soon afterwards, Kurosawa expressed an interest in doing a modern tale that would describe the emotional turmoil of a middle-aged man confronted by his own impending death.  That film, Ikiru, arrived in 1952 and has since become widely recognized as one of Kurosawa's most deeply moving films.  In Japanese, the title means "to live," which describes well the protagonist's internal transformation through the course of his remaining days.

Anyone who has seen Ikiru will have no difficulty in acknowledging Kurosawa's incredible talents as a director.  Many an inferior director has attempted the maudlin disease-of-the-week film in the half-century since Ikiru, but none has approached the artistry and honesty of this Kurosawa masterpiece.  Kurosawa, much to his credit, also avoids the typical pathos and sentimentality so common in this sort of film.

Ikiru starred one of Kurosawa's favorite actors, Takashi Shimura.  This actor had appeared in Kurosawa's directorial debut, 1943's Judo Saga, as well as many of the director's other films.  However, Shimura's performance in Ikiru is a truly immortal one, possibly the greatest in all of Kurosawa's films.  Shimura plays Kanji Watanabe, a middle-aged man who learns that he has terminal cancer and must decide how to find meaning in the time remaining to him.  Shimura's transformation in Ikiru into a tired, gaunt man is so completely convincing and his performance so incredible that it simply must be seen to be fully appreciated.  It is a role of relatively few speaking lines, yet Shimura is able to fully convey his character's innermost feelings and thoughts almost purely through gestures, body language, and facial expressions.

Ikiru is set in an atmosphere of post-war modernism as Japan struggled to adapt to its new-found democracy and capitalism.  Shimura's Watanabe is a typical bureaucrat, a section chief of the Public Affairs department.  He is a boring and taciturn man whose small office is cluttered with enormous stacks of documents and forgotten papers piled to the ceiling.  There is little room to move, and one feels a sense of cold alienation in this dry civil office.  Watanabe is, as one of his staff jokingly nicknames him, a "mummy."

There is another joke of a similar nature early on in the film - a government man fears to take a vacation, not because he considers himself too indispensable to his office's daily functioning but because he fears that in his absence, his true irrelevance will be revealed.  It may be a humorous observation that perhaps holds a greater universal truth to the workplace than just to this film.

In a way, it describes Watanabe's situation well.  For thirty years, Watanabe has toiled and passed his days in this cramped office with a record of perfect attendance.  He exists but is not truly alive.  Watanabe's very life, in a sense, has been wasted, but it is soon about to change.  Ikiru opens on an image of an abdominal X-ray.  It is Watanabe's X-ray, and we are told immediately by a narrator that Watanabe is suffering from stomach cancer.

Watanabe himself is never directly informed that he has cancer.  In Japanese society during this period, doctors regularly practiced nondisclosure, treating their patients while concealing the true nature of their diseases.  Watanabe learns of his condition, a "mild ulcer" as the doctor states it, indirectly, but Kurosawa is able to convey the deep effect the truth has on Watanabe.  There is a small but wonderful scene shortly afterwards as Watanabe walks glumly along the sidewalks.  There is no sound until he attempts to cross the street, at which point the soundtrack suddenly blares with the horns and roar of passing traffic.  Watanabe has become so devastated that he is oblivious to his surroundings, walking in a silent world.  Kurosawa presents this short scene brilliantly and without much fanfare, yet it is one of the many intimate touches that he brings to Ikiru to reveal Watanabe's thoughts to the viewer without the need for dialogue.

Watanabe must contemplate the summary worth of his life to date, measured against the time still left to him.  How he responds, and how his colleagues and family (Watanabe lives with his son and daughter-in-law) react to his slowly-changing behavior, is the story of the film.  Watanabe recalls his past through a series of short vignettes and observes the happiness of the young at heart, striving to find a purpose for his remaining days.  When he ultimately does discover a reason "to live," it is to that end that he devotes the remainder of his energy.

It should be noted that Ikiru is a slow film.  Kurosawa uses many extended takes and long sequences in his film, yet it is never dull for a moment, thanks to Kurosawa's eye for composition and framing.  From a technical aspect, Ikiru is truly an astounding film, using a wide variety of deep focus shots, pan shots, tracking shots, boom shots, numerous close-ups, and much more to develop and communicate the story, even in the long stretches where there is minimal dialogue.  There is a fluidity to Kurosawa's camera movements and careful attention to the film's lighting that reflect Kurosawa's highly visual and cinematic style.  In contrast to the more traditional and minimalist style of such directors as Ozu, Kurosawa may have seemed flashy to Japanese audiences, but his flourishes always served to enhance his films and were never of a Hollywood show-offish nature.

There are some wonderful montages and sequences in Ikiru.  Early on, one amusing montage follows an earnest group of petitioning citizens as they are shuffled haplessly through the thick bureaucratic red tape of City Hall.  Another sequence later in the film follows Watanabe's nocturnal journey through the more decadent side of the city night life.  It is a brilliant sequence in which Watanabe, finding himself a Mephistopheles to guide his hand, wanders like a lost child through the cities bars and dance clubs before deciding that happiness does not lie in this life for him.  The sequence includes a touching song by Watanabe, sung in one long, extended close-up; it is a tune that will recur later at important interludes in the film.

Ikiru takes an unusual and radical turn approximately two-thirds of the way into the film.  While the first portion of the film is told in the present, the remaining hour focuses on a group of Watanabe's associates as they reminisce about him through a series of flashbacks.  It is a daring move which would absolutely never appear in a Western film.  I will not reveal the nature of this story development any further, but it is a testimony to Kurosawa's confident direction that it works so well in the context of Ikiru and its overall tone.

Ikiru was Akira Kurosawa's thirteenth film.  Coming shortly after Rashomon and directly before The Seven Samurai, it represents the emotional core of Kurosawa's greatest period as a director.  Very few directors can claim even a single classic film to their credit; that Kurosawa, in a span of merely four years, could produce three acknowledged masterpieces in such rapid succession only re-confirms his legacy as one of the greatest film directors ever.

Video ** 1/2

Ikiru is shown in its original black & white, full-frame presentation, employing a transfer that was created from a newly restored 35mm print.  Although many instances of dust and debris have been removed from the picture, the print itself still shows numerous scratches.  Contrast levels are pleasing, and the picture is quite sharp with minimal grain and no glaring compression artifacts.  While the film certainly looks its age and the print quality is no longer in pristine condition, this is probably about as good as we will get to see Ikiru.

Audio ** 1/2

Ikiru is presented in Japanese Dolby digital 1.0 with optional English subtitles.  Obviously, the audio quality doesn't possess the dynamic range of newer films and may sound shrill at times, but at least the soundtrack has been cleaned of hiss and pops.  This is about as good as Ikiru will probably sound, and Criterion has done a fine job here.

Coincidentally, the final third of the film is virtually devoid of music.  There had originally been a score written for this portion of the film, but Kurosawa ultimately felt that this portion of the film was better without music (save for a few instances of the tune that Watanabe sings earlier in the film).

Features ****

Ikiru arrives as a double DVD set.  The first disc contains the film as well as a somewhat old and worn trailer.  There is also an audio track provided by Stephen Prince, author of "The Warrior's Camera: the Cinema of Akira Kurosawa."  It is a solid commentary that provides insightful critical interpretations of the film and Kurosawa's technique as well.  In addition, Prince explains some aspects of the cultural differences seen in the film which may appear puzzling to a Western audience.  Although the overall tone of the commentary is somewhat scholarly, it is definitely worth listening to.

The second disc contains only two extra features, both of which are superb documentaries.  The first one, A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies, is an absorbing 81-minute exploration of Kurosawa's career that begins with a look at his early influences and some of his films.  Then, it is divided into ten chapters (editing, lighting, costumes, art direction, etc.), each focusing on an aspect of Kurosawa's innovative directorial style.  Kurosawa himself appears in many interview segments to offer a few descriptive comments as well.  There are also many opportunities to actually see this master filmmaker directing his actors, including behind-the-scenes glances at Kurosawa's later films, Rhapsody in August and Madadayo.  Overall, this is truly an invaluable documentary that is absolutely worth the price of admission, as it is a virtual crash course in Kurosawa's working technique.

The second feature is a 41-minute documentary, Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create.  This feature presents an examination of the concept behind Ikiru as well as pre-production and production anecdotes from the film's cast and the crew.  Most of these revelations are found in the interview clips in this feature by such notables as Takashi Shimura, Hideo Oguni (the film's co-writer), and even Akira Kurosawa himself.  Publicity stills from Ikiru's production are also shown, as well as brief excerpts from the film itself.

Lastly, as is often the case with Criterion releases, there is a short essay provided on the package insert inside the DVD case.  The essay was originally published in Donald Richie's The Films of Akira Kurosawa and is a fairly intellectual discussion of the film's themes.  It is worth reading, although I recommend watching the film prior to looking over this essay.

Bonus Trivia - Five of the samurai from The Seven Samurai appear in Ikiru.  Can you identify them?  Here's an easy one - Takashi Shimura played the samurai leader!

Summary:

Ikiru may not be about samurai, but it is nevertheless one of Akira Kurosawa's finest films.  Quiet and introspective, it represents Kurosawa at his most touching.  This DVD release is another triumph for Criterion and an absolute must-have for all fans of international cinema!