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Playing at the film club: Biutiful (Inarritu, 2010)

Film Club: Ikiru (Kurosawa, 1952)

Ikiru
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.

Background

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 Kurosawa had been scheduled to work next for the film studio Daiei, but the studio had withdrawn their commitment.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.

Approaches

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.

Reception

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.

Availability

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.


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Discussion

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Isaac Dunne

My Kurosawa boxset which contains Ikiru is supposed to arrive tomorrow. I am looking forward to finally watching, you did an amazing job setting the scene well done! 🙂

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Vili Maunula

So, has anyone managed to watch the film yet? It would be interesting to hear your thoughts.

If you had never seen the film before, how did you like it?

Or if this wasn’t your first time watching it, did you notice something new this time around?

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Markus J

I will watch it when I have the chance. Maybe next week or so. 🙂

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Ugetsu

I’ve watched it so many times, but I must admit its a couple of years since the last time, so I look forward to pulling out my dusty copy.

I’m interested to see it scores quite highly in the latest BBC list of ‘all time great foreign language films’, although well behind Seven Samurai and Rashomon. I think thats quite a feat in some ways as films which are intended as being quite contemporary rarely seem to date as well as historical or fantasy type films.

I can never quite decide where it stands in my favourite AK films. It always seems to me somewhat apart from his other major works, but I can never quite put my finger on why this is. Perhaps because of all his major films its the least ‘genre’?

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Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: I can never quite decide where it stands in my favourite AK films. It always seems to me somewhat apart from his other major works, but I can never quite put my finger on why this is. Perhaps because of all his major films its the least ‘genre’?

Interesting! For me, Ikiru is pretty much the quintessential Kurosawa film that tends to come to mind first when I think about Kurosawa films. I guess I consider his period films the exception and the ones with a contemporary setting the norm, and Ikiru also encapsulates so much of what Kurosawa is about for me: the humanism, the message about personal responsibility, social aspects, the interpretation of (as opposed to knowing) what really happened, structural experimentation, and so on.

It’s not my favourite Kurosawa film — I suppose that’s still a toss between One Wonderful Sunday (the one I love most) and High and Low (the one I like most). Also, when I watched Ikiru this time around, I thought the middle section could have been shorter. But perhaps I’m just growing older and more impatient. I had a similar reaction recently while watching The Hidden Fortress, or actually ssj’s hilarious Sukaiwaka Fortress re-edit.

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BMWRider

I love this film and plan to watch it again this weekend. What makes it so special is not the story or the cynicism, but the mise-en-scène. It is simply a beautiful film. I will report back after watching it again, but wanted to chime in.

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chomei

“Ikiru” is the film that made me a Kurosawa devotee. I have seen it many times and think the best way for me to proceed is to comment on each section as I watch it.

I think the narrator is perhaps God or some, for lack of a better word, supernatural power. Perhaps it is even the cancer itself. We know the first x-ray is different from the second x-ray. If the doctors had seen the first x-ray they probably would have operated and he would have had more time to live, more than the 6 months he has, so either the first x-ray was ignored by the doctors, perhaps a commentary on Japanese post-war healthcare, or it never existed, which is my belief.

And who is the strange man who Watanabe meets in the clinic? He’s there all day and it seems all he does is read newspapers. I view him as a messenger sent to tell Watanabe his fate and perhaps show him what will happen to him if he doesn’t do anything in what is left of his life.

Toyo is another messenger, not to mention the writer who takes us on that extraordinary tour of nightgown.

I see this movie as a Buddhist parable, a myth perhaps, presented in such a realistic way that it fools us at first.

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Fabien

When I have to summarize Kurosawa’s œuvre to connoisseurs (but lacking AK knowledge), I tend to talk about human and humanism, for, like Vili, I believe it is the very substance, here.

Though, nearly like Ugetsu, I have difficulties putting a label on Ikiru, and it’s not a film which comes to my mind when I have to summarize Kurosawa to people with no cinema knowledge at all; I rather tend to talk about Edo and contemporary settings, which conveniently divide and present (although simplistically) his work.
And with this in mind, I wonder if we could say that Ikiru could have taken place in either period, because the movie is so deeply and strongly rooted in human nature, that it transcends periods, and because the movie is not attached to strong visual and era-dependent elements (like banners in Ran, revolver in Stray Dog or the industrious and pink-smoking city in High and Low).

I will have to watch it again to confirm this thought. Very soon.

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Ugetsu

Vili:

For me, Ikiru is pretty much the quintessential Kurosawa film that tends to come to mind first when I think about Kurosawa films.

I would not disagree with this at all. In many ways, it is Kurosawa’s ultimate statement on matters of individual morality and humanism.

I think in many ways my problem with it (not that I think its anything less than a masterpiece) is that it is at once simplistic (the story of a dying man seeking redemption could be done by any number of jobbing directors), but also nearly infinitely complex. The more I think about the film the more I think there is to it, but I struggle to know exactly why. Nothing I’ve read on Ikiru I think really gets to the core of the film, I just wish I knew what that core might be.

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BMWRider

I watched the film again Saturday with my script book in hand. I probably prefer the book subtitles to the Criterion subtitles, but that is a matter of taste.

With your kind permission I am going off on my own tangent. I love all of the comments and threads regarding this film (probably in the 5-10 range for me in the BMWRankings of the Kurosawa canon) and find them as studied and as well thought out as they always are in this forum. But two phrases I have been hit with in the last few weeks came to mind while watching this movie. The first and not as applicable is “perfect is the enemy of good.” And yes, this is a very good film, but it is not (nor should it be) perfect. The scenes with Writer could have been halved, the argument at the wake could have been punched up a bit, but in all they contribute to the story. And the views of postwar Japan were very intriguing. The sound staging (silent then cacophony, gentle noises, and the laughter) was wonderful, and of course my previous comment regarding staging and motion. All contribute to a very fine film.

The other phrase is, “a year after you are gone, no one at work will miss you.” So in full disclosure after a long period of study I went to work for a major international company (everyone internationally would know it) about 18 months ago. I returned to the workforce after a three year academic hiatus, and came back with a vengeance. Working 50 to 60 hour weeks, weekends, etc. Yes, all the classic signs of being a workaholic. And I am. But since I am not 25 anymore, my body is taking a beating, stress is draining me. And much like Watanabe, I am starting to feel it is drudgery, nothing more. Honestly, the message of Ikiru struck me more this week than it ever has before. What is important in life, where should we focus, and what makes a life valuable or meaningful in the end. I agree with comments on another thread, these are themes that many philosophies wrestle with, and Kurosawa does a wonderful job of presenting his perspective. Of course I am convinced he was a workaholic as well.

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Hyperborealis

Like Ugetsu, I can’t grasp the essence of the film, if only since it overflows with meanings. I saw Ikiru for the first time yesterday, following Roger Ebert’s recommendation (in his review of Seven Samurai he names it Kurosawa’s best film), and was overwhelmed.

For me, watching Kurosawa’s films, the extraordinary visual moment is what stays with me. In Ikiru, it’s Wantanabe’s face, bent forward but looking up, in an unforgettable expression of humility, pain, and hope. It’s indescribable. He seems so slight, so wasted, and yet he is indomitable, relentless, of a high character no one else can touch. A masterpiece of acting surely, but also of directing, to seek out and emphasize these expressions.

What a great movie. It is certainly a reason to live itself.

Thank you to everyone and Vili in particular for moderating these excellent discussions–I have learned a lot.

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BMWRider

Takashi Shimura (who appeared in 21 Kurosawa films) is absolutely splendid in this movie. He emotes so well you can understand his thoughts without any dialogue. My goodness this is a fine movie.

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njean

The first half of Ikiru is loaded with music. Some of it was apparently composed for the film, e.g., the music at the beginning that accompanies the mothers as they are shuttled from department to department, and the rather mournful refrain that plays during Watanabe’s flashbacks regarding Mitsuo. Much of the music in the first half, however, consists of fragments of pre-existing works that are heard on the radio, or at the movies, in the skating rink, at the merry-go-round, etc. In addition to these fragments there is dance hall and strip tease music, and the overall impression to my ears is just noise – which is appropriate since it accompanies Watanabe’s frenetic night on the town. The one welcome relief is the song Watanabe sings, Gondola no Uta. Things change, however, when we get to the Happy Birthday scene. We hear faintly a march tune in the background, as Watanabe finally tells Toyo he’s going to die soon. This music, which Richie identifies as ‘The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers,’ plays sometimes louder, sometimes softer, throughout the scene until the moment when he realizes what he is going to do. In a final triumphant flourish it accompanies him as he picks up the mechanical rabbit and heads off to the staircase. This is followed immediately by Happy Birthday (would Japanese young people at that time really use Happy Birthday? Would the audience recognize it?)

What a difference is the second half of the film. There is no music at all in the entire wake scene. Teruyo Nogami, in the ‘It’s Wonderful to Create’ video, says that originally there was music for the scene. It’s clear from what she says that Hayasaka had composed music for the flashback portions, but it’s not clear whether there was also music for the actual wake scene itself. Whatever, all of the music was removed after Kurosawa viewed the initial screening of the supposedly finished product. He thought that, far from adding to the visuals, it detracted. As a result, the only music in the second half is the final chorus of Gondola no Uta, with Watanabe singing on the swing in the falling snow, and then its instrumental refrain as the playground is seen. Did you notice the lack of music? In other films (Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo come immediately to mind), the music adds tremendously to the drama, and yet, in the case of Ikiru, the absence of music is also very effective.

One last thing about the music. In the nightclub with the piano player, Watanabe haplessly pursues a dancer as she energetically makes her way around the floor in what is surely a parody of the latest (Western-inspired) dances of the day. It reminded me of the Jungle Boogie scene in Drunken Angel, which has always struck me as a grotesque take on the Japanese adoption of Western popular music. Kurosawa was evidently less than pleased by the cultural invasion.

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Vili Maunula

BMWRider: Working 50 to 60 hour weeks, weekends, etc. Yes, all the classic signs of being a workaholic. And I am. But since I am not 25 anymore, my body is taking a beating, stress is draining me. And much like Watanabe, I am starting to feel it is drudgery, nothing more. Honestly, the message of Ikiru struck me more this week than it ever has before. What is important in life, where should we focus, and what makes a life valuable or meaningful in the end.

I too have been wrestling with these questions lately, especially my work-life balance. I’m in the happy position of doing work that is diverse in nature and that I (for the most part) enjoy and consider meaningful. But I also have the bad habit of biting far more than I can swallow, and then find myself stressing out to meet those impossible goals that I have set for myself. It is so easy to turn something enjoyable into a burden. This website is a very good example: I constantly need to remind myself that it is just a hobby and that I should approach its hosting and maintenance accordingly, especially in terms of my stress levels.

This was actually one major reason why I picked the film to restart the film club with, as well as it being the most requested film in the survey. It definitely resonates. Differently than when I was 25.

Hyperborealis: For me, watching Kurosawa’s films, the extraordinary visual moment is what stays with me. In Ikiru, it’s Wantanabe’s face, bent forward but looking up, in an unforgettable expression of humility, pain, and hope. It’s indescribable.

It definitely is! I wanted to write something meaningful about this, but now I find it really is quite indescribable, like you say.

Hyperborealis: Thank you to everyone and Vili in particular for moderating these excellent discussions–I have learned a lot.

Thank you for being here!

njean: As a result, the only music in the second half is the final chorus of Gondola no Uta, with Watanabe singing on the swing in the falling snow, and then its instrumental refrain as the playground is seen. Did you notice the lack of music? In other films (Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and Yojimbo come immediately to mind), the music adds tremendously to the drama, and yet, in the case of Ikiru, the absence of music is also very effective.

This is a very good point indeed. In a way, what we have instead in the third act is the wake’s Greek chorus of bureacuracts, commenting on what has happened, and to an extent, what is happening. But no music. I didn’t remember that the later scenes originally had music composed for them, but were removed, thanks for pointing that out!

I wonder how they have handled all this in the new musical adaptation of Ikiru, within a genre which isn’t exactly known for its silences.

I suppose it is also meaningful that most of the music in the second act is foreign, but the song associated with Watanabe is not only Japanese, but from an era before Japan’s militarism and everything that it had led to. I wonder how well known it was at the time. The Japanese Wikipedia page mentions popularity in the 1920s through song books, but the first recording it lists is actually Ikiru, with other versions coming only later. No doubt the list is incomplete, however.

njean: (would Japanese young people at that time really use Happy Birthday? Would the audience recognize it?)

An interesting question. I assume it would have been familiar to Japanese audiences, but have nothing really to back that up.

Ugetsu talked about this film being infinitely complex, and that “happy birthday” scene is one place where I find it difficult to process the full complexity of the scene, or the various meanings that it communicates.

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Fortinbras

Thank you for starting this film club. I’m really looking forward to see all of Kurosawa’s films again, in this setting. I’m also looking forward to the other films and have bought Biutiful although I didn’t think it was VERY good when I watched it a few years ago.
I don’t feel I have much to add to the discussion of Ikiru. It’s definitely one of my all time favorite films and I was glad to watch it again and to use the opportunity to read about it again.
In general, the first time I watch films I do it before reading any analysis of it. I remember the first time I watched Ikiru I was really moved by the understanding and respect for Watanabe that was shown at the wake.

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njean

Reactions to Ikiru can be quite variable. I know three people who, within the past year, watched (or tried to watch) Ikiru for the first time. None of them made it to the wake scene. They all said, “It’s too depressing,” and gave up. All three were retired professional women. At the other end of the spectrum, some say it’s the most beautiful film they’ve ever seen.

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chomei

I have always felt that one reason for the narrator is to reassure the audience. Cancer in the early 1950s in the U.S. was something people were very afraid of, more so than today and I assume it was the same in Japan, an almost certain death sentence. People didn’t want to talk or think about that.

So perhaps one way to understand the purpose of the narrator is as a reassurance to the audience, telling us that while he’s dying, it’s not as bad as it looks, not to get upset.

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Ugetsu

I finally managed to watch it in its entirety tonight, the first time in a few years I think. To be honest, its not an AK film I’ve watched often (unlike his Samurai films) simply because I find it quite overwhelming at times.

On this viewing, the thing that struck me most was the comedy – I’d forgotten just how funny it is. The ensemble acting in the funeral scene really is terrific, you can tell immediately even the most minor part is filled by a very fine actor. Of course its difficult for most of us to really grasp what’s going on in the funeral scene as so much of it is culturally so specific, but I do love how the family in the scene say so little, but you can sense their increasing confusion as this new Watanabe they never knew existed is revealed to them. But I do find it curious that Watanabe son and daughter in law are something of a loose end – the last we see of them is when they realise Watanabe knew he was dying, but we never really know what happens after – did they have a new respect for him?. Come to think of it, the film has quite a few loose ends – we never know what happens later with Toyo, who doesn’t even come to the funeral, or the novelist.

Another thing which struck me this time with force is just how strongly the film focuses on class. There is this constant very direct contrast between the poverty and squalor of so many of the characters – not just the women petitioners, but think of Toyo’s description of her home (‘two rooms with three families’) and the rough little bars Watanabe first visits. And then we frequently see the rich – the contrast between the Deputy Mayor joking about the poor quality geishas at his club the night before, or the upmarket clubs in the night scene. This is particularly striking I think in the ‘happy birthday’ scene, where we see Toya visibly both jealous and uncomfortable looking at the obviously very rich upper class girls in the party, or the very westernised and cool looking couple in the booth next to them.

But as always, I’m struck by the brilliance of so many of the scenes. The night time sequence really is a tour de force of filmmaking by any standards. Some of the camera work is breathtaking – particularly in the piano bar scene. Just think what Kurosawa could have done with modern equipment.

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Isaac Dunne

It has been almost a month since my first comment and in this month I have seen all of Akira Kurosawa’s films that are avalible. I was inspired by this discussion group to fill in the gaps of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography. I hope to bring to this discussion group some young and fresh eyes and views/ interpretations. Thank you all, especially Vili, for making this group possible. 🙂

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