"We humans are so careless. We only realize how beautiful life is when we chance upon death."—Novelist
Well, here it is: the Criterion Collection's first two-disc Special Edition release of a film by Akira Kurosawa, one of the great directors best represented in their catalogue. Let's dig in…
Facts of the Case
Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is a middle-aged bureaucrat so slavishly devoted to his meaningless work he hasn't missed a day in nearly 30 years. A longtime widower whose relationship with his son and daughter-in-law is strained, Watanabe's world is thrown upside-down when he's diagnosed with gastric cancer and given six months to live. His first response to the devastating news is to get drunk at a sake bar. There he meets a second-rate novelist (Yunosuke Ito) who takes him into the seedy world of Tokyo pachinko parlors, nightclubs, dance halls, and strip joints. The dying man's brief sojourn into Japanese post-war decadence is unsatisfying, only heightening his sense that his life thus far has been an aimless exercise in existential sleepwalking.
Watanabe is inspired by the youth and vigor of an underling in his department, a young woman named Toyo who seeks his permission to quit her job because she can't imagine spending the rest of her life as a low-level bureaucrat, shuffling papers but never accomplishing anything meaningful. Watanabe first tries to live vicariously through the girl, taking her to restaurants and soda shops, leaving his family with the impression he's taken up an affair. When Toyo finds the old man's clinging creepy, he confesses his imminent death to her and realizes he can't bring meaning to his own life by trying to live someone else's. The revelation of what he must do to give meaning to his remaining days comes to him: through a persistent force of will, he might be able to get the bureaucratic wheels rolling on a reclamation project that would turn a mosquito-infested cesspool responsible for health problems among the working classes into a children's park.
Between 1952 and 1954, Akira Kurosawa made the consecutive masterpieces Ikiru and Seven Samurai. Calling them masterpieces is neither exaggeration nor idle praise. The director made a total of 30 films during his career, most of them great and a few average, but those two films—his 14th and 15th, respectively—found him at the peak of his powers during the most vibrant and creative phase of his career. Of course, Seven Samurai is the most well-known of his films in the West, but if one is to understand the complexity of Kurosawa's sensibilities, Ikiru is a must-see. Like many Japanese artists, Kurosawa was fascinated by the tension between an individual's autonomy and his duty to others (family, clan, co-workers, society). Just as Seven Samurai and Ikiru occupy different genres (the former is a jidai-geki, a period film, while the latter is a gendai-geki, a contemporary drama), they present opposite perspectives on the individual/group dialectic. In Seven Samurai, the ronins' duty to one another and to the farmers who hire them to protect their harvest from raiding bandits provides each man with a sense of identity previously lost in the chaotic 16th-century civil wars that are the film's backdrop. Ikiru, on the other hand, casts the group-think of its post-war bureaucrats as entirely ineffectual and selfish. Of all the characters in the film, only Watanabe reaches a full measure of humanity, which is to say he gains the ability to act consciously and forcefully on behalf of himself and others. That this lifelong bureaucrat is tossed ass over tea kettle into his humanity only when the inevitability of his own death is thrust upon him, says much about Kurosawa's views of the life-numbing power of group identity gone awry. But close examination of the two films reveals that, despite their differences, they're not at all contradictory. By the end of Seven Samurai, the ronin have been stripped of their new identities by the farmers who have no use for them once the bandits are defeated. "We have lost," the samurai leader (played by Shimura) famously intones, the movie's final words. In the end, both films assert Kurosawa's belief in the primacy of the individual. The quality of any group is determined by the quality of the individuals who comprise it (the fact the two movies share many of the same ensemble cast members adds immeasurably to the resonance of this theme). The fascinating tension repeated again and again in Kurosawa's work is his seeming desire to have faith in the potential of the collective as a force for moral good, cast against his deep skepticism that such potential can ever be achieved in the real world.
But let's take a closer look at Ikiru on its own, at those things which make it a brilliant piece of cinematic art…
The plot description I provided at the top of this review makes no mention of the events that comprise the last third of Ikiru because it's impossible in a summary of the narrative to express the genius of the script's structure. A simple relaying of plot makes the movie sound disjointed, which it is not. Once Watanabe has his epiphany, the film jumps forward to his wake, where his fellow bureaucrats recall (in a series of flashbacks) his bizarre, unrelenting championing of the park in the face of bureaucratic apathy, and come to realize their co-worker was aware of his impending death. Relegating the protagonist's death to ellipsis (or nearly so—we do see Watanabe's final moments near the very end of the film) avoids cloying emotion but, more importantly, it transforms the picture from a run-of-the-mill story of a man's final days to a piercing tale of his coming to life for the first time in decades. Ikiru, after all, means "to live," and Kurosawa shows little interest in Watanabe's death beyond its role as a catalyst for his blossoming humanity.
But don't get me wrong. The fact Kurosawa and fellow scribes Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni avoid overwrought emotion doesn't mean the film is cold-hearted. As a matter of fact, Ikiru is probably the filmmaker's most earnestly emotional film, delivering rich pathos in every single scene without ever crossing the line into cheap sentimentality. While the script establishes hard barriers against undue sentiment, much of the credit for the depth and honesty of the picture's existing emotion must be attributed to the tour de force performance of Takashi Shimura. A character actor by trade (one of the documentaries on Disc Two of this set relays the touching anecdote of Shimura's own wife at first having deep misgivings about Kurosawa casting him as the film's lead, then weeping with uncontrolled joy when her husband's name appeared on screen at the film's premiere). He lacked the star presence of an actor like Toshiro Mifune, but his performances are consistently subtle, precise, and emotionally rich. Fast approaching his 50s by the time he donned the threadbare overcoat and flashy fedora of Kanji Watanabe, Shimura's career stretched back nearly 20 years and over 50 films. Despite previous whiz-bang performances like his turn as the woodcutter in Kurosawa's Rashomon two years earlier, Shimura's work in Ikiru would prove to be the artistic apex of his career. In it, we find everything that makes him a joy to watch: an earthy humanity and forthright emotion expressed so skillfully through the precise use of his body, face, eyes, and voice they appear unforced, natural. Shimura had that singular talent that makes great actors great: he could fully inhabit a character. If his portrayal of Kanji Watanabe doesn't convince you (and I don't see how it could fail to), just contrast it with his turn as the samurai leader Kambei in Seven Samurai. It's hard to imagine two men with less in common than Watanabe and Kambei, but Shimura is so convincing in both roles one entirely loses sight of the actor.
Thanks to the Criterion Collection, we can all enjoy Takashi Shimura's bravura performance—as well as every other glorious detail of this masterful film—for all time in our favorite digital format. They've delivered once again on their high standards, capturing and preserving an important piece of cinema in the best presentation possible. As with most Japanese films of the period, Ikiru has some serious source flaws, including some ultra-fine vertical scratches in the emulsion, inconsistent contrast (a sort of flickering) in isolated scenes, and jittery transitions. That said, the movie looks the sharpest and cleanest it ever has in a home video format. Ikiru was one of the last films in which Kurosawa utilized deep focus, and this DVD presents an image with enough definition to fully appreciate the mastery of his compositions. The black-and-white image isn't consistent throughout, but there are a surprising number of scenes (again, considering the source) in which blacks are fully saturated and the gray scale is broad and subtle. On an absolute scale, it's certainly not going to be the prettiest image you've ever seen, but judging it on an absolute scale would hardly be fair.
The restoration of the original Japanese soundtrack is of a surprisingly high quality. Sure, the track's got all the dynamic limitations of mono, but it's otherwise free of the nasty pops and fuzz often lurking in the background of half-century old analog soundtracks.
As with their recent two-disc release of Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story, the list of supplements for Ikiru doesn't stretch on forever, but Criterion has wisely opted for quality over quantity. In addition to the feature itself, the first disc contains a theatrical trailer and a superlative audio commentary by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa. The track bursts at the seams with information as Prince covers everything from background on the screenwriting, the narrative structure of the film, Kurosawa's compositional techniques, Shimura's research and preparation for the role of Watanabe, identification of the Kurosawa regulars in the film and background on their careers both in and out of Kurosawa's oeuvre, cultural differences between Eastern and Western medical practices, and detailed analysis of the movie's social commentary on post-war Japan. Prince has provided excellent commentaries for Criterion's release of Red Beard as well as Wellspring's Masterworks Edition of Ran, but the track here is easily his finest work to date. It's packed with substance and his delivery is easy and engaging. And like most Criterion commentaries, the track is indexed separately from the feature for easy access to the specific topics covered.
Disc Two houses two documentaries. The first, A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies was produced in 2000 by the director's own production company. At 81 minutes in length, it provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes peek into the filmmaker's methodology from screenwriting, to pre-production, to casting, to shooting, to editing of both film and sound. The film offers no direct insight into Ikiru, its main focus the production of Kurosawa's penultimate film, 1991's Rhapsody in August, but its wealth of information about the filmmaker and his approach to his art is valuable nonetheless. Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create provides plenty of Ikiru-specific information, though. A single episode from a series of Japanese television documentaries about the master filmmaker, the piece runs 41 minutes and is similar in structure to the first documentary on the disc. It details the development and production of Ikiru and culls interviews from cast and crew, including segments with Takashi Shimura, shot not long before his death in the early 1980s. Each of the documentaries is rock solid in the video and audio departments; both are presented in Japanese with optional English subtitles.
Two documentaries; Stephen Prince's commentary; an insert booklet reprint of the Ikiru chapter of Donald Richie's definitive book of Kurosawa scholarship, The Films of Akira Kurosawa; and the feature itself, of course: it all makes for a mini film school seminar on the beautiful piece of art that is Ikiru. But, hey, would we expect any less from Criterion?
Any self-respecting cinephile must own this DVD.
This movie is perfect.
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Scales of Justice
• Audio Commentary by Stephen Prince
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