Recently, I’ve had some time off thanks to Labor Day and the way my work schedule has been coinciding with it. I’ve taken the opportunity to catch up on some Dag scripts, listen to a few albums and podcasts, but most importantly re-watch some amazing movies I have not seen in awhile. It’s been a rather busy few days, if you consider the amount of media I have been consuming. Out of everything I watched, re-watched and listened to there is one that really stood out to me: Ikiru, Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 Japanese film. And, as it should, it hit me in a way most things haven’t in a long time.
For anyone who may not know, Ikiru was a film written by legendary director Akira Kurosawa (just check out his IMDB), and two filmmakers who would consistently be career-long collaborators. The first of the two was heavily involved writing the original screenplay of the film, Hideo Oguni (Ran 1985, Seven Samurai 1954). Oguni would later go on to be a writer for the 1970 American/Japanese joint film Tora! Tora! Tora!. The other writer involved, I believe mainly after the conception, was Shinobu Hashimoto (Rashomon 1950, Throne of Blood 1957).
Here’s the thing about this film: it deals with your standard themes of regret such as a life wasted, working too hard in a bureaucracy etc. in a very unique way, and it continues to stand out even 60+ years later. I would describe it as a stark Capra film; a bittersweet It’s a Wonderful Life, with no going back. There are remnants of this film’s tone stretching into modern day films. While I have not heard any direct quote claiming this, the beautiful shots and long scenes accompanied by fitting music that fill Hayao Miyazaki films make me think of this movie. There are no fantasy elements in Ikiru, and Kurosawa takes a very omniscient and nonlinear approach, but it still harkens that nostalgic, sweeping worldview.
~very minor spoilers ahead~
Takashi Shimura (yet another person Kurosawa fans will recognize from many films) plays the role of the protagonist Kanji Watanabe. Watanabe-san has spent most of his life in the Public Affairs office in Tokyo. The story starts up post-war and Tokyo is in a state of legislative overreach, one which Watanabe-san is just a small part of. He is sort of a slug; not really unhappy, but does not realize he truly isn’t happy or living to his fullest. This all changes rapidly when he finds out he has stomach cancer. First he tries to find meaning with a night out on the town, indulging to no end. When this fails, he tries living vicariously through an ex-coworker, until finally he must face facts and find meaning within his current life. This means accepting cancer and doing what he can with what little authority he has.
The plot alone should be enough to really grab an audience, but it’s some of the things said during the film that are really distinct. At one point Watanabe-san is opening up about his cancer, and poor relationship with his son. He describes it in a moving speech, musing that the act of communicating with his son reminds him of nearly drowning as a child. He speaks of his parents were too far away to hear him, and how he helplessly started to die. The film is littered with moments like these, yet the pacing allows it so nothing piles up upon one another becoming stale.
I love this movie, maybe a bit more than other Kurosawa films. It’s a long dramatic film, but interspersed with beautiful music, and a need to know just how it ends. For a western audience it sits at that sweet spot of 143 minutes and has just enough recognizable American society in it that no huge culture shock moments happen. It’s a great entrance point to Kurosawa because of all this. Some of his films tend to be so immersed in Japanese history and culture, a westerner with no knowledge of it may be a little intimidated. It should also be mentioned that a great deal of Kurosawa’s films tend to reach that 3-hour mark and beyond.
Anyway, if you haven’t checked this one out go for it. If you have: rewatch it. Every time I see this film it’s a huge pleasure.
Check ya’ll later,