“Ikiru” may not be one of Kurosawa’s most famous films, but it is certainly one of his very best. “Ikiru” was released after “Rashomon” and before “Seven Samurai”. “Ikiru” is a departure from Kurosawa’s samurai films. Kurosawa chose to tell the simple story of a man coming to terms with his impending early death. Criterion has presented this excellent film in a superb 2-disc DVD release.
Kanji Watanabe, portrayed by Takashi Shimura, is a government employee who hasn’t missed a day of work in 30 years. He sits at his desk everyday, virtually engulfed by the ever-increasing stacks of paper surrounding his work area. He eats his lunch unenthusiastically and never encourages laughter from his coworkers. He rarely smiles and his personality is a mystery to all that know him. He is the perfect example of an ineffectual government “drone”. I have heard the saying that to maintain a government job is to never show up late, never take a sick day and to never actually do anything. If this is true, Watanabe is the realization in flesh of that very theory.
The viewer is introduced to Watanabe through his stomach. Rather, an x-ray of his stomach is the first image the viewer sees in the film. His stomach will be the catalyst for many changes in his life and the life of those that know him.
Watanabe has been experiencing lots of stomach pain. This prompts him to miss his first day of work to see a doctor. A patient in the waiting room tells him that if the doctor tells him he has a light ulcer, that is a code phrase for stomach cancer. This stranger then goes on to describe the symptoms of stomach cancer. Watanabe has these exact symptoms. The diagnosis of stomach cancer is like receiving a death sentence and the doctor wants the patient to try to live out the rest of his or her days in as much mental “peace” that is possible. After receiving this tragic news, Watanabe stumbles out of the office and into a harsh reality. The reality of only having a limited time left alive.
Watanabe examines his life in detail. He reminisces about his wife and her early death. He realizes the mistakes he made as a father that led his son Mitsuo to become the detached man that he is today. Mitsuo and his wife are more concerned with their inheritance than they are the feelings of their father. Watanabe decides to keep his knowledge of his upcoming death a secret from his family and coworkers. Perhaps it is because he doesn’t want them to worry, or maybe it is because he is afraid the news will not affect them at all.
Watanabe encounters a man that introduces him to the wild side of life. This life is filled with loud music, liquor and women of little virtue. It is a side of life Watanabe has not experienced. The man hopes this will help Watanabe enjoy his remaining time. However, Watanabe does not enjoy this experience. In fact, it makes him grow even sadder and more distant.
He has a chance meeting with a former coworker, Toyo Odagiri, portrayed by Miki Odagiri. She is a vivacious young woman with abundant energy. She would like a letter of reference from Watanabe because she is leaving her government position. She tells Watanabe that her government position is very monotonous and she would like to find a position that fulfills her. Watanabe is impressed with Toyo’s outlook on life and soon is inviting her out daily for lunches, dinners, movies and other activities. The two of them are seen together by family and coworkers and are thought to be lovers. They are not lovers but merely friends. Toyo brings a temporary levity to Watanabe’s life but soon it is draining for her to try to accommodate and understand Watanabe’s somber feelings.
Watanabe discovers a way he can bring meaning to his life. In his government office, there have been numerous visitors from a nearby town. There is a cesspool in the middle of their town that needs to be cleaned up for health reasons. They have been on the receiving end of the inefficient government system. Watanabe realizes that through his position, he could help the inhabitants of this town by getting the problem corrected. He could leave a playground where there has been ugliness. He returns to work with this new goal in mind.
Takashi Shimura is absolute perfection in the role of Watanabe. I do not feel any other actor could have captured not only the melancholy but also the reflective and sensitive nature of Watanabe. The scenes where Watanabe is singing sadly with his eyes glistening with tears were completely heart wrenching and believable. The famous scene of Watanabe sitting in the playground on a swing as snow begins to fall is one of the poignant of any scene ever captured on film.
Another interesting detail about “Ikiru” is the manner in which the story is structured. The character of Watanabe dies half way through the movie. With more than an hour left, the other characters are left to deal with his death and consider his heritage. I found this to be refreshing and very progressive considering the year this film was made. Most Hollywood films would save the main characters death until the end for an emotional finale. I found it to be fascinating to be able to explore the affect of Watanabe’s death on his coworkers and family. Did his act of kindness have an affect on those that knew him or did they merely return to their selfish and unhelpful lives?
I cannot say enough wonderful comments about this film. It is truly one of the greatest films in cinematic history. The emotional impact this film had on me will reverberate for many years.
“Ikiru” is presented in its original full frame 1.33:1 aspect ratio. The image is very good and this film looks better than it has in years. I did notice an occasional pale vertical line and slight flicker. Overall, the film looks first-rate.
“Ikiru” is presented in its original mono audio track. The moments of silence that are utilized by Kurosawa in the film are well preserved.
The Bonus Features
Criterion once again provides an exceptional DVD. There is the original trailer available. Also, an interesting essay written by Japanese film historian Donald Richie is included as the insert.
There are two exceptional documentaries included. One is entitled “A Message from Akira Kurosawa”. It is a great documentary not only giving the viewer a biography and filmography of Kurosawa but also interviews with the late director himself as he was working on “Madadayo” and “Rhapsody in August”. It is great to here Kurosawa himself explain his influences and methods.
The documentary “Akira Kurosawa-It is Wonderful to Create” was produced by Toho Masterworks. It provides extensive information about the process of creating “Ikiru” from script to screen. There are great interviews with many actors from “Ikiru”. There are many in depth interviews with collaborators of Kurosawa, such as script supervisor and the art director. This was the perfect companion to the film.
Also, there is a feature length commentary from Kurosawa film expert Stephen Prince. Prince’s commentary is interesting and provides an interesting insight to the film. Prince explains small details of Japanese culture and manners most viewers would not notice.
Criterion has produced an extraordinary DVD for an extraordinary film.
Overall (Not an Average)10/10
The Movie 10/10
The Video 9/10
The Audio 8/10
The Bonus Features 10/10
Overall Rating (Not an Average) 10/10