Published on October 9th, 1952 | by Padraic Coffey0
Sam Mendes’ overvalued American Beauty begins with its omnipotent narrator detailing the mortality of an oblivious central protagonist. This protagonist will realise that he is burdened by underachievement in his profession and personal life, seek to recapture the vitality of youth he witnesses in others and have debatable success in doing so before meeting his inevitable demise. Nearly fifty years prior to Beauty sweeping the boards at the Academy Awards, Akira Kurosawa made a similarly-themed, but much less sensational or implausible film.
Ikiru centres on Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a thirty year veteran of the civil service, with placards in recognition of his near-perfect attendance record. His much-younger colleagues regard him as a antiquated pencil-pusher, and are stunned when he fails to materialise for work one day. Having visited his doctor for treatment on what seems like a mere ulcer, Watanbe is convinced he has stomach cancer, and attempts to atone for his lifetime of waste, first by drinking with a “half-baked” novelist, then by pining for the company of a much younger female colleague, Kimura (Shinichi Himori). He eventually startles Kimura with his inarticulate affection, but she inspires him to carry out his finest achievement.
Of all the thirty films Akira Kurosawa directed, the ones for which he is most familiar to Western audiences are his action epics, Yojimbo – remade as Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars – and Seven Samurai. Some may even cite The Hidden Fortress, from which George Lucas borrowed several plot elements forStar Wars, or Rashomon, which was pioneering in its use of the “unreliable narrator” motif. Ikiru, however, differs from these other titles, in that it is a character study of the weary Watanabe, and not a plot-driven ensemble piece. Shimura gives a performance filled with regret, though the frailty of his character make him at times difficult to watch, and Himori is vivacious as Shimura’s former subordinate. Kurasawa avoids the pitfalls of many other May-to-December themed films, never overlooking the basic improbability of their relationship. The scene in which Himori shuns Shimura’s misconstrued advances is saddening to watch.
Ikiru is a film about the passage of time, and the risk occurred in capitalising on your life. As the opening narrator muses: “the best way to protect your place in this world is to do nothing at all.” While melancholy in its tone, the film is not without its moments of bittersweet humour. Fleeing his awkward meal with Himori, Shimura seems to be met with a roomful of strangers singing “Happy Birthday” to him, until we realise they are greeting another girl moving in the opposite direction.
Like Welles’ Citizen Kane and Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Ikiru is constructed with flashbacks to illuminate the events that led to Shimura’s elderly state, such as the death of his wife in the early years of their sons life, and the subsequent widening of the distance between them. As in Ozu’s Tokyo Story, the relationship between Japanese parents and their adult children is fraught at best. Perhaps in a deliberate switching of Ozu’s film, Shimura’s daughter-in-law is even more discourteous to him than his son.
Ikiru starts to lose its way in its third act, when former colleagues of Shimura’s discuss his death and the motivation behind the sudden burst of energy in the final months of his life. Each one attempts to deflect credit from him for the newly restored children’s park into which he has channelled his powers as Public Chief, before they are forced to recognise his achievement. These scenes, while necessary in informing the viewer of Shimura’s legacy, tend to drag on, and are hampered by overacting from some of the bureaucrats. Nonetheless, this section does feature one of the most iconic images in Kurosawa’s oeuvre, that of Shimura swinging backwards and forwards in the park he has almost single-handedly refurbished, singing to himself. While Ikiru may not as popular as some of the aforementioned Kurosawa pictures, Pulitzer Prize-winner film critic Roger Ebert cites it as the Japanese director’s greatest work. It is also frequently reported to be a favourite film of Steven Spielberg.