Ikiru (1952, Akira Kurosawa)


Far away from feudal systems and Samurai battles, Akira Kurosawa’s moving, playful Ikiru stands above many of his better-known films. A profoundly emotional story in a rainy, chilly urban environment, it is — like many of the director’s early works — concerned with the human fallout of postwar Japan. I find all this more interesting than his typical period-based subject matter: Ikiru — “to live” — is about a man, local city director of public affairs, with stomach cancer who struggles to find a way to stop wasting his life in his final months. With impeccable timing, an opportunity comes up involving a sewage spill and a clamoring for a public children’s park.

Though implicitly critical of corrupted democracy, Ikiru is a highly personal film about a single man’s feeling of immense waste and regret, and the emptiness of his initial attempts to compensate (a wild night out with booze and strippers, a platonic fling with a much younger woman), which occupy the majority of the narrative. Kurosawa’s achievement is how startlingly universal he is able to make the plight of a man near retirement age who has made more sacrifices for his son than were ever asked, perhaps in fear of the very living he now longs for. Takasha Shimura is idiosyncratic, subtle, and haunting in the lead.

Although it’s at least half an hour too long, Ikiru remains fascinating for the duration, although I am slightly puzzled by Kurosawa’s decision sixty minutes before the ending to abruptly jump ahead to his protagnoist’s death and the aftermath, throwing in a repetitive subplot about city officials’ attempts to cover up the size of his contribution to the building of the playground. It’s similar to the endless grousing at the beginning and end of Rashomon about how bleedin’ crazy the story of Rashomon is. I would have preferred to stay with the hero of the picture and watch those developments in a more closely personal way. Instead there’s a sudden shift to a Citizen Kane-type structure, which is somewhat in keeping with the many cutaways and flashbacks in the first half — and certainly makes the director’s point in the clearest possible fashion — but robs us of the powerful sense of identification Kurosawa achieved with Shimura’s Watanabe.

This notwithstanding, Ikiru — a favorite of Steven Spielberg’s, for reasons that grow quite clear as it unfolds — shows us a master of his profession at peak: where else are you going to find a movie that spends ten minutes hilariously (and accurately) dissecting local government bureaucracy, particularly with innovative cutting and speed? And where else are you going to see so many stunningly beautiful images, shadows and swingsets and snow and nightlife, all in glorious black & white (shot magnificently by Asakazu Nakai)? Nowhere, that’s where. Seven Samurai may be a thrill, but Ikiru reveals a primal human cry of a different and even more deeply affecting sort.

[Originally posted in 2007.]

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