Welcome to the Akira Kurosawa Film Club! After a two year break, we restart the club with Kurosawa’s 1952 film Ikiru, which many consider one of the greatest films ever made.
This post serves as a quick introduction to the film. You can read it before or after watching Ikiru, or skip the post entirely. It’s up to you.
Ikiru was in many ways a crucially important film for Kurosawa. After the commercial and critical success of his immediate post-war films, Kurosawa had experienced the first misfire of his career with his 1951 The Idiot. Based on the Dostoevsky novel, the film had been a passion project for Kurosawa but towards the end of the production, the producing studio Shochiku had wrestled it away from the director’s control. Kurosawa had been forced to cut a hundred minutes out of the original over four-hour-long cut (that has since been lost) and in the process the film had irreversibly changed. Critical response to The Idiot had been negative and its commercial success muted. Kurosawa had been scheduled to work next for the film studio Daiei, but the studio had withdrawn their commitment. For the first time in his career, the now 41-year-old director found himself without a project.
Not that he was out of work. As a prolific screenwriter, Kurosawa penned screenplays for no less than four films that premiered in 1951 and early 1952: Senkichi Taniguchi’s Beyond Love and Hate, Tatsuyasu Osone’s The Den of Beasts, Kazuo Mori’s Vendetta for a Samurai and Hiroshi Inagaki’s Sword for Hire. But when would he direct again?
Help came from a very unexpected source: Europe. Unbeknownst to Kurosawa, his 1950 film Rashomon had been entered into competition at the prestigious Venice Film Festival. To the surprise of pretty much everyone, the film charmed the jury and on September 10, 1951, four months after The Idiot‘s muted premiere, Rashomon was announced as the winner of the Golden Lion. It was the first Japanese film to win that most prestigious award in the film world and as the news of its success reached Japan a few days later, Kurosawa was suddenly in demand again. Rather than going back to Rashomon‘s production company Daiei that had turned him down after The Idiot, Kurosawa reunited with his first film studio Toho, a partnership which would last for Kurosawa’s next eleven films.
The screenplay was likely written by January 1952, with rehearsals and preproduction starting in mid-January. Shooting began in March and lasted largely uninterrupted until September, with a summer break in June. Following a quick post-production period typical for Kurosawa who liked to edit his films as he was shooting them, Ikiru opened in theatres on October 9, 1952.
In Ikiru, Kurosawa returns to a setup quite similar to one that he had explored a few years earlier in two back-to-back films, Drunken Angel (1948) and The Quiet Duel (1949). As in those films, the events of Ikiru are fuelled by the protagonist’s struggle with a life-threatening disease. But unlike in those earlier works, this time around the protagonist’s actions are more positively focused and less personally motivated. They are also more universal, with Kurosawa tackling with nothing less than a quest to find meaning in life. Ikiru‘s story was thematically influenced by Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, and likely also by Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, but unlike Kurosawa’s previous two films The Idiot and Rashomon, Ikiru was an original story, not an adaptation.
The film has been extensively studied and much praise has been lavished on it. Prince sees it as nothing less than “among Kurosawa’s most radical experiments with form and among his most searching inquiries into the nature and morality of human feeling, particularly in relation to its structuring by the cinematic image.” (100) He goes on to discuss Kurosawa’s connection with Brecht’s plays and especially the playwright’s method of “complex seeing”, where “the viewpoint of a play would emerge from a multivoiced montage of theatrical elements — characters, gesture, dialogue, set design, projected films and titles — rather than be easily localized within any one of these elements”, a method which Prince identifies also in Kurosawa, and especially so in the cinematic structure of Ikiru.
This type of “complex seeing” is evident in the film’s utilisation of multiple points of view, which on the most basic level is structurally accomplished by the film being divided into two fairly independent parts, the latter of which consists of an almost rashomonesque attempt of interpreting the events and the moving forces behind the now-deceased main character’s actions. This structure is discussed in length by many, including Richie and Goodwin. The narrative device was originally suggested by Kurosawa’s co-writer Hideo Oguni, a by then well respected screenwriter whom Kurosawa had known from the beginning of his career, but with whom he formally collaborated for the first time in Ikiru. The two were joined by Shinobu Hashimoto who had already worked with Kurosawa on Rashomon. Ikiru therefore marks the first time that Hashimoto, Kurosawa and Oguni wrote together, forming one of film history’s most talented screenwriting trios, and one that would go on to work on, with additional helping hands, on all of Kurosawa’s films for the rest of the 1950s, with the exception of The Lower Depths, which Hashimoto sat out.
Several critics have talked about the feminine characteristics of Ikiru. Yoshimoto argues that “Watanabe is is consistently feminized”, something that is “most conspicuously manifested in his muteness” and in the way that he associates with female characters, even himself becoming a “maternal character” in his mission to push forward the construction of the children’s park (201). Also the character of Toyo, Watanabe’s inspiration in finding a new meaning for his life, has received much attention. Catherine Russell goes as far as to call her the “only really interesting female character in Kurosawa’s entire cinema”, although in my personal opinion without merit.
Ikiru is also very much a post-war film and a large part of it can be interpreted as a critique on Japanese bureaucracy and society at the time. Under the occupation government, Japan was also turning increasingly to the west and western influences are indeed to be seen almost everywhere in the film. They range from various forms of popular entertainment to the nature of the bureaucratic machine within which Watanabe works, and which he ends up fighting. The film’s depiction of a contemporary family has also been noted as underlyingly negative, presenting us with a large generation gap between the father and his son.
It has occasionally been suggested that Watanabe’s cancer could even be interpreted as a metaphor for the westernisation of Japan. Joan Mellen more specifically argued in The Waves at Genji’s Door that while Kurosawa’s film condemns the Americanization of Japan, it does not blame the occupiers. In Mellen’s view, the underlying message of the film is that if your life is empty and without purpose, it is only you who are to blame, as change has to come from an individual awakening and effort. (231-233) In this view, it is not the occupiers who are to be blamed for Japan’s allegedly blind adaptation of foreign influences, but the Japanese themselves.
Ultimately, Ikiru presents a very personal story with a much wider societal message. It looks at something at the very core of our existence and asks, like Kurosawa’s films so often do, how we could live happier together. It invites the audience to think what part you could play in that goal.
And this of course only scratches the narrative surface of what Ikiru has to offer. I haven’t mentioned Takashi Shimura’s wonderful and career defining performance, or the film’s visual style. You might want to pay special attention on how the sound design emphasises certain story beats, at one point even doing so by not playing any sound at all. And keep an eye also on how Kurosawa places his actors and how by their placement he distinguishes different groups of people, particularly early on in the office scenes and later at the wake.
When released, Ikiru was an enormous critical and commercial success, winning among other things the Kinema Junpo Award for the best film of the year as well as a silver bear in Berlin. It remains one of Kurosawa’s best known and most highly praised works, and the simple question that the work poses the viewer — you may exist, but do you live? — continues to resonate well with today’s audiences.
Ikiru was remade as a Japanese TV film in 2007 and its DNA can be found in a diverse range of works, including the hit TV series Breaking Bad and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2010 film Biutiful, which we will be watching in December. A western remake of Ikiru has been talked about for over two decades now but one has yet to materialise — although latest reports suggest that a production of the latest attempt might start as soon as next year. And the story has recently found a home also outside of the film world: last month, a musical adaptation opened in Tokyo to positive reviews.
Naturally, we have also discussed the film on a number of occasions, including in the previous editions of the film club. Those curious about previous discussion should take a look at the forums’ Ikiru tag.
Ikiru should be widely available wherever you are. Check out iTunes, Google Play and/or Amazon Prime Video, which offer the film as a digital rental in many countries. If you have no luck there, or want to own a copy, you can take a look at the Blu-ray and DVD guides. Or check out your local libraries or rental shops.
The floor is now open for the first film in our new film club. What are your thoughts about Ikiru? You can leave general comments and reactions below and use the forums for posts about more structured theories and interpretations.
Finally, I would also like to remind you that in December, we continue the film club with Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 2010 film Biutiful which shares themes and content with Ikiru. Like Ikiru, it should be widely available for pretty much all of you. If you can’t find a digital copy, Blu-rays and DVDs are available for instance from Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.