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Criterion Collection: Ikiru | Blu-ray Review

Akira Kurosawa IkiruIn six decades of filmmaking and thirty plus titles in his filmography, it’s nearly impossible to determine the weighted importance concerning a number of the influential works from Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa, considered by many to be among the most notable directors from Japan, alongside peers such as Mizoguchi and Ozu. Instead, it’s easier to discuss his work in strategic measures regarding theme or motif, such as his famed Shakespearean adaptations or epic Samurai classics, pillaged endlessly by Western filmmakers in proceeding generations. But certainly a definite standout is his 1952 title, Ikiru, which roughly translates as “to live.” A powerfully humanistic title examining the significance of life as something only to be rightly cherished when seen through the lens of death, it stands at the slender end of a filmography generally examining human tendency for apathy, revenge, and other plateaus of self-destructive forces. Moving without being sentimental, Kurosawa reaches the sort of emotional depths akin to early Frank Capra films, where cynicism was pushed aside by the integrity of the human spirit.

An x-ray of Kenji Watanabe’s (Takashi Shimura) chest is shown to us, an omniscient narrator explaining the elderly bureaucrat has stomach cancer, but doesn’t know it yet. Having worked for thirty years in Tokyo City Hall as a glorified paper pusher who has never accomplished anything of notable merit, Watanabe is devastated after listening to another patient in the waiting room prophesize the exact diagnosis he’ll soon hear from his physician, and thus begins a downtrodden odyssey wherein he learns to embrace his last bit of time on earth, bitter he’s allowed so much time to waste away. Unable to divulge the diagnosis with his son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko), a child he’s devoted to, (which explains Watanabe’s lack of marrying again after the death of his wife), he instead confesses to a sympathetic writer (Yonosuke Ito) he meets drinking in a bar. Aiming to enjoy his last few months, the civil servant calls in sick to work day after day, leading young office worker Toyo (Miki Odagiri) to seek out the old man to get a required signature on her notice of resignation. Watanabe is taken with her youthful charm and convinces her to spend the day with him. Eventually, he decides he must do something meaningful with his remaining time, and so makes it his mission to push through bureaucratic red tape and erect a playground in a slum.

Takashi Shimura would appear in eleven films by Kurosawa, but never as powerfully relevant as he is here, with the director capitalzing on ther performer’s strength as stand in for the veritable ‘everyman.’ Ikiru is also the only Kurosawa between 1948 and 1965 not to feature his usual leading man, Toshiro Mifune. These distinctions give the title unique flavor amongst several of the director’s more celebrated works, where tales of bloodthirsty vengeance or multi-linear narratives of slum-dwellers remain prominent. Many of the supporting players were featured in several Kurosawa titles, but some of Shimura’s best scenes are shared with a young actress, Miki Odagiri, making her screen debut. She’s boisterous, self-centered, and annoying, brimming with a youthful obliviousness which she uses to deflect her ignorance of Watanabe’s situation so she can get what she needs from him. Their shared day together is ripe with bittersweet melancholy, and leaves Watanabe wanting to spend more time with her, leading to an equally realistic moment of disappointment.

Ikiru has influenced a number of auteurs since, including Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain (2006), and Tom Ford’s A Single Man (2009), narratives built upon the shoulders of men facing death and unforeseen connections with vibrant characters revitalizing their outlook. Shimura’s Watanabe is the perfect example of a man who accidentally slipped into a common trap, “a slave to your own life,” as he’s determined here.

Coincidentally, Kurosawa released this title the same year as Vittorio De Sicca unveiled Umberto D., another woebegone tale of an elderly man cast off into society’s periphery, and the treatment of Watanabe by his callous son and daughter-in-law is comparable to Yusujiro Ozu’s equally timeless Tokyo Story (1953). Kurosawa utilized regular DoP Asakazu Nakai, who worked on many of the director’s more elaborate action films as well as with a great number of other auteurs of the period, including Mikio Naruse and Kon Ichikawa. With Ikiru, the elegiac tone is also effectively orchestrated thanks to equally simplistic framing, with the diminished Watanabe gaining volume and prominence in the frame until he’s the center tying it all together, swinging in the snow.

Told in pieces, mostly in flashback as Watanabe’s mourners attempt to decipher the meaning of his last desperate act to create a legacy through the construction of a local park allows Kurosawa to expertly dissect the ignorance and impatience involved in the man’s determination to make a small part of the world a better place in his absence. The haunting moments featuring him forlornly swinging in the drifting snow as he sings a mournful 1920s tune used earlier in the film (urging young women to fall in love before their time is up) are unforgettable.

Disc Review:

This is a newly restored 4K digital transfer of the title, which initially was added to the collection in 2004. The Blu-ray features an uncompressed monaural soundtrack and a new essay by critic Pico Iyer, but otherwise contains the same features included in the original disc’s release (including optional audio commentary from Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa). Picture and sound quality are superb.

A Message from Akira Kurosawa – For Beautiful Movies:
This documentary produced in 2000 by Kurosawa Production Inc. is an in-depth look at the director’s process. The eighty minute piece covers the originations of several titles, from origin through several aspects of the filmmaking process. Also, a great deal of biographical info is provided on the director.

Akira Kurosawa – It is Wonderful to Create:
A forty minute documentary on the making of Ikiru is part of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create. Featured interviews from a number of Kurosawa’s regular collaborators, such as writer Shinobu Hashimoto, art director Yoshiro Muraki, script supervisor Teriyo Nogamu, and actors Takashi Shimura, Mika Odagiri, and Kin Sugai makes for essential viewing.

Final Thoughts:

Kurosawa is one of the prominent staples in the extensive Criterion Collection, as twenty six titles have been included in their line-up over the years (including two box sets from their Eclipse line). While they are all worth watching, Ikiru is a definite essential and remains one of the most moving examples on the fleetingness of life.

Film Review: ★★★★½/☆☆☆☆☆
Disc Review: ★★★★/☆☆☆☆☆

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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