AKA: To Live, Doomed, Ikiru (1952)
Year Released: 1952
Distributor: The Criterion Collection
Running Time: 143 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: PG
Related Films/Series: Anand, A Simple Death, Ivans XTC, Ikiru (2007 Remake)
For Fans Of: Citizen Kane, The Most Beautiful, The Window, Wrinkles, Umberto D., No Sad Songs For Me
-I reviewed the digital version of this film on Google Play.
-Ikiru is based on Leo Tolstoy’s book The Death of Ivan Illych, albeit with some plot point changes and changing it to a Japanese setting.
-The main character of Kanji Watanabe is played by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura. He’s also been in his other films such as Rashomon, Sanshiro Sugata (Kurosawa’s debut film), and even Seven Samurai to name a few. Outside of that, Shimura was also in the first Godzilla movie as Dr. Kyohei Yamane.
-The song “Gondola no Uta” is the main one that Kanji’s character sings. It was written in 1915 and written by Isamu Yoshii and Shinpei Nakayama. Outside of Ikiru, this same song was referenced in the Fushigi Yugi Genbu Kaidan manga and the Boogiepop and Others novel series. Speaking of anime connections…
-Film Buff Bonus: Ikiru was referenced in Kirby: Right Back At Ya! of all anime series and I’ve actually seen that episode a long time ago before first seeing Ikiru. There’s an episode where there’s an asteroid that’s about to hit Dreamland and before that happened, King Dedede refuses to make a park for the kids. As the asteroid comes closer to impact, he eventually builds it and ends up on one of the swings by himself which is an homage to the very iconic scene of Kanji in the newly built park. Normally that scene is a spoiler, but everyone who knows anything about Japanese cinema knows the imagery of that film and it’s on the DVD cover.
-There was about to be an American remake produced by Dreamworks, but that’s been in development hell since 2003. Do you want to know who they were going to cast as the main character? Tom Hanks. That’s right.
It has been a very long time since I’ve reviewed anything from one of Japan’s premier directors Akira Kurosawa. Anyone who considers themselves film buffs, should know and have watched at least one of his films at this point. He’s certainly influential on so many levels and multiple directors owe their careers to his artistic endeavors during his life. Now, I’ve only reviewed two Kurosawa movies although I’ve seen far more. I checked out Yojimbo during my first year in Iridium Eye which I enjoyed even though I wouldn’t call it his best movie. I then saw the sequel Sanjuro which I found to be one of the most criminally overrated films of his career and I don’t get why people like it especially with the title character becoming a God Mode Stu in that film. Kurosawa certainly has a reputation of making so many films that are period pieces with samurais and/or Japanese royalty from centuries ago, but this next film is a major twist since it would’ve been a modern day piece at the time of filming it.
That particular movie is also considered to be one of his best if not his best film in he made in his life. Do I agree with all of the praise and esteem?
Ikiru deals with the life of a city hall employee named Kanji Watanabe. He’s been going through the motions of paperwork, bureaucracy, and overall boring work for over thirty years. What Kanji wasn’t aware of was he develops stomach cancer. When he finds out about his terminal illness, he only has months to live and he starts to have a change of heart over his last days on this planet. Kanji felt like a living corpse for decades especially being a widower while his son and daughter-in-law mooch off him and long for getting a huge inheritance once he croaks. He doesn’t even tell his family about his cancer. Kanji exposes himself to the high life in Tokyo with a bartender and eventually starts a companionship with a soon-to-be ex employee who’s young enough to be his own daughter (context: she wants to send her two weeks into him and he needs to sign it) who eventually shows him some aspects of life that he never cherished before. The one lingering goal that gets passed over by more departments than there are flavors at an ice cream shop involves building a playground for the kids instead of dealing with an untreated cesspool. Kanji initially refused prior to his knowledge of his stomach cancer, but this suddenly lights a fire to do something about it.
This is actually the second time I’ve seen this film after initially watching it sometime in my late teens when I was exposed to more of the international stage of film. There’s certainly lots of things to like about Ikiru. The gravity of the whole situation with Kanji and his cancer is quite believable in the main character’s desperation and eventual self-awareness. He just does his job with no emotion even if others are inconvenienced by the governmental red tape and other factors. After he initially suffers, he tries to find the sunny side of life even has he internalizes his misery. That scene where he first sings “Gondola no Uta” is very powerful despite not having a stellar voice. He just nails the right amount of sorrow and regret singing it and it becomes a coda during the iconic swinging scene. Even with my second time watching it, that scene still hits me in the feels and I wouldn’t be surprised if people cry when that part happens. It was fascinating seeing his interactions with the different people he meets as he sort of relearns how to smile in different locations and by being over-generous with others like paying someone’s tab at the local bar. Besides the story and characterization, this is certainly shot well and the music was great. Nothing too bombastic and certainly on the realistic end, but certainly handled better than films made decades after this one.
Ikiru is certainly highly esteemed, but there are imperfections. The most obvious one which certainly applies to other older films is the footage. The film has certainly aged and one could easily tell it was made in the 50s. It certainly looks good given the time and The Criterion Collection’s remastering job, but that is quite blatant. I also thought the final act had some pacing issues. While the ending is no less powerful, things do kind of tread water with the funeral scene where all the co-workers are just sitting there with such long takes. I’m glad there was good characterization and dialogue before leading to a very damning indictment on society which still applies to people to this day (I won’t spoil that), but my patience was tried during a few moments. I thought the timing of the funeral and the flashbacks could’ve been handled better or at least have shaved ten to twenty minutes of screen time to get to the point. It was also hard to keep track of most of the city hall employees. They do have names, but I had to look them up to be sure who was whom.
This film from Akira Kurosawa may not be some end all be all part of cinema, but it’s still better than so many other films and still holds up to this day. Kurosawa still has master storytelling abilities and the whole plot can be quite convicting to so many viewers. Kanji’s story of redemption before he kicks the bucket is very inspiring and really hits the right kind of emotions. I do wish they could’ve changed some parts of the third act as it plodded a bit, but Ikiru was no less powerful in it’s impact of a film. I may not be one of those critics who instantly praises Ikiru to high heaven or believe that Kurosawa is some kind of cinematic god, but this is still one of his best works and deserves the acclaim even if I don’t think it’s the ultimate masterpiece. I still strongly recommend watching it at least once. It’s not your fault if you hit the waterworks in this movie though. I would certainly think it’s the best Kurosawa movie I’ve reviewed on Iridium Eye so far.
Adjustable Rating System:
Add 1 point if you’re an Akira Kurosawa fan.
Subtract 1-2 points if you shy away from movies about death.
-Kanji’s character development
-Convicting storytelling about life, death, and the pitfalls of bureaucracy
-Great realistic portrayal of filming and characterization
-Aged film and transitions
-The third act does meander a bit
-Lack of notable background characters
Final Score: 9/10 points
Content Warning: This would get a solid PG. The plot of Ikiru involves the main character getting stomach cancer which is dark in itself. He’s told about the side effects of his disease in explicit details. There’s drinking and smoking going on in the movie. There’s one cabaret show that is implied to be a striptease, but you never see the woman taking her clothes off (to be fair, that scene is extremely tame compared to films that came out long after this was made).
All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Ikiru is property of Akira Kurosawa and The Criterion Collection. The DVD cover is from The Criterion Collection and is property of The Criterion Collection.