SYNOPSIS: Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is a longtime bureaucrat in a postwar Tokyo government office who, along with the rest of the staff, spends his entire working life without accomplishing anything of importance. Once he learns he is dying of cancer, and realizes that he is without any meaningful relationships with family, friends, and strangers, he comes to believe that he can make a difference by arranging for the construction of a playground in an impoverished area of the city. To do it, he uses the one thing that Kurosawa posited as feckless and inconsequential - his bureaucratic job.
The story for Ikiru was an original screenplay written by Kurosawa and a new co-writer, Hideo Oguni. Their partnership would endure, off and on, through Kurosawa's late epic, Ran in 1985. Oguni said of the beginning of their lifelong friendship, "...(H)e told me that he wanted to write a story about a person who learns he's dying but finds something to live for in his last days. He said he wanted more than mere advice. He wanted to use Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich as its basis and asked me to write with him..." One of Oguni's major contributions to the story was the unique structure of having Watanabe die in the middle of the film. This essentially breaks Ikiru in half. The first deals with Watanabe's initial reactions and final acceptance of his death sentence. In the second half, we see Watanabe's colleagues, family members and the people for whom he built the playground react to Watanabe's death. Donald Richie notes this two-half structure in his book The Films of Akira Kurosawa: "In Ikiru it is important that the second half becomes posthumous because much of the irony of the film results from a (wrong) assessment of Watanabe's actions made by others after his death. Or, to put it another way, we have seen what is real-Watanabe and his reactions to his approaching death. Now, in the second half, we see illusion-the reactions of others, their excuses, their accidental stumblings on the truth, their final rejection of both the truth and Watanabe."
Central to the success of Ikiru as a motion picture drama, as a study in loneliness, life, death, hope, is the truly remarkable performance by Takashi Shimura as Watanabe. Kurosawa cast Shimura in his first film, Sanshiro Sugata, and would cast him again and again in large and small roles, all the way up to 1980, in Kagemusha. It is difficult to overstate how versatile Shimura was in Kurosawa's hands; two years after playing the pitiful and despairing Watanabe, Shimura would be lethal, quick and inspiring lead samurai Kambei in Seven Samurai (1954). But it is his performance in Ikiru that is truly wondrous-melancholic, despairing, but also hopeful, illuminating, and even funny. It is easily among the top twenty film performances of all time.
Critical reaction to Ikiru overseas was mostly negative, largely because of the film's two-part structure. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther said that the "last third of it is an odd sort of jumbled epilogue in which the last charitable act of the deceased man is crudely deconstructed in a series of flashbacks that are intercut with the static action of a tedious funeral." This review completely misses the point of the film. Of course, Crowther wasn't alone. During a retrospective in Berlin in 1961, Kurosawa learned that the David O. Selznick "Golden Laurel" was to be given to Ikiru. Selznick's representative called Kurosawa and told him the news, then added, "It is a great film, one of the best films ever made-after all it is going to receive Mr. Selznick's own 'Golden Laurel'-but Mr. Selznick is of the opinion that it drags a bit, particularly during the funeral scenes. Don't you think we might shorten it a little?" This, coming from the producer of Gone with the Wind (1939)...
After a brief screening in California in 1956, where it was renamed Doomed, Ikiru was finally given a proper official release in America in early 1960. Unfortunately, the distributor chose a highly tacky method in which to advertise and promote the film. The film's poster did not feature images of Takashi Shimura's Watanabe, but rather the high-heeled stripper that he sees during the night when Watanabe seeks earthly pleasures. Ads made no mention of the metaphysical questions of life's meaning but rather the tawdry splash lines, "See It Now! Complete! Uncut!" and "Go Now-Lest You Repent Later!"
The Los Angeles Times critic Kevin Thomas got it right though when he wrote: "Ikiru is a very deeply affecting study of a life, a death, and a final desperate attempt to bring a meaning into both of them...Ikiru must be put into that small category of film masterpieces. Its director, the noted Akira Kurosawa, has combined bleakly honest reportage with a kind of mute visual lyric poetry which has reminded more than one reviewer of the black and white camera work of Ingmar Bergman..."
Producer: Sojiro Motoki
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni
Cinematography: Asakazu Nakai
Music: Fumio Hayasaka
Cast: Takashi Shimura (Kanji Watanabe), Shinichi Himori (Kimura), Haruo Tanaka (Sakai), Minoru Chiaki (Noguchi), Miki Odagiri (Toyo Odagiri, employee), Bokuzen Hidari (Ohara), Minosuke Yamada (Subordinate Clerk Saito), Kamatari Fujiwara (Sub-Section Chief Ono), Makoto Kobori (Kiichi Watanabe, Kanji's Brother), Nobuo Kaneko (Mitsuo Watanabe, Kanji's son), Nobuo Nakamura (Deputy Mayor), Atsushi Watanabe (Patient), Isao Kimura (Intern), Masao Shimizu (Doctor), Yunosuke Ito (Novelist).
BW-142m. Closed Captioning
by Scott McGee