Review by Ed Nguyen
Takashi Shimura, Miki Odagiri, Nobuo Nakamura, Yunosuke Ito
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Audio: Japanese 1.0
Video: Black & white, full-frame 1.33:1
Features: Commentary, trailer, two documentaries, essay
Length: 143 minutes
Release Date: January 6, 2004
think of ceasing to be...and it is from these thoughts that Ikiru
came." - Akira Kurosawa
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!