It’s been over a year since my last Kurosawa, though there’s only two left on the list from him for me to see. Still, he is definitely in my top tier of directors, so there really wasn’t any reason for me to avoid starting up Ikiru, aside from the moderately extended running time. Truth be told, though, the only experiences I’ve had with Kurosawa have been his “jidaigeki”, or Edo-era period drama, films, like Rashomon or Seven Samurai, so I was a little unsure of what to expect from a Kurosawa film set in the present day, though the Book’s entry on this one had no such qualms about the director’s altered timeframe. What worries I had were instantly alleviated when the film got to its first major plot point, and the rest of the film from there was nothing short of a case study in master filmmaking, as well as a life lesson or two.
Takashi Shimura stars in a bravura performance as Kanji Watanabe, a bureaucrat who’s essentially been willingly stuck in the same position for over 20 years, wasting his life away. It is only when he is diagnosed with stomach cancer and given less than a year to live that he finally takes a look at his life and sees all the time he’s killed. After a night out on the town with a stranger he’d met in a bar, he decides to put forth what efforts he can in his short time left to better his neighborhood by converting a local drainage ditch into a children’s playground. As befitting a plot description like that, the film is largely concerned with Watanabe himself, and the plot is mostly there as a forward impetus to his character, to literally make something of his life before he leaves. The film kinda cheats in the beginning, getting across the idea that our protagonist is pretty much dead to the world and hasn’t lived a real life in 20 years by simply dictating it to us through narration, but once the diagnosis hits, the film drops its previous levity and stares cold and hard into Watanabe’s soul, largely through the performance of Shimura, which is absolutely perfect in damn near every way. The collapsing of his face after he is diagnosed is the turning point in the film, and from there it largely rests on his shoulders, and he carries the film as if there were no weight whatsoever. His rendition of the melancholic love song ‘Life is Brief’ in a nightclub is probably the most heart-wrenching I’ve seen since Les Mis, made even more so by the crowd around him reacting as we are to his singing. The last act of the film, though, is the most unexpected (if you don’t mind the mild spoilers); the film quietly leads up to Watanabe’s decision to make something of his life by building the park, and then for the last act, it skips ahead to after he has died, and takes place during his wake, as his former coworkers explore what caused such a change in him and, through flashbacks, his extraordinary efforts to achieve his one meager little goal. It’s an interesting decision by Kurosawa, and it certainly makes the film’s last act unconventional, but it does seem to make the film lag somewhat at the end.
It seems Kurosawa, at least in his prime, can do no wrong; this was an amazing open-faced look at what it means to truly live, and it is a film that bares its soul to us the audience without a single fear. Now, as good as this was, I should acknowledge that it won’t be for everyone; there are quite a large number of moments where time seems to be suspended, as Kurosawa lets the moment itself be all the power the film needs, but to others, it’ll just seem as though nothing’s happening, and if we were to take the film literally moment-by-moment, they’d be right. Frankly, if you are the type of person who will end up making such an assessment about the film as a whole from these occasional pregnant pauses, then perhaps classic (in both definitions) cinema isn’t really for you. For those much more open to a wider berth of experiences, if the moderate pacing and running time don’t bother you, this is certainly one to give a go at some point. It may not exactly be an experience you’ve never had before, but the core beliefs and message imparted, plus one hell of a central performance, are what really make this a must see.
Arbitrary Rating: 9/10