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by Ryan Arthur

"What can a heart filled with despair grab onto?"
5 stars

Before The Seven Samurai, before The Hidden Fortress, there was Ikiru. Following Rashomon, Akira Kurosawa directed this smaller, more personal film, a contrast to the larger, sweeping epics that would follow. But because it is smaller does not necessarily make it any less powerful.

Ikiru (meaning "to live") centers around Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a bureaucrat who has lived the better part of his life at a desk. He's the section chief of the Public Affairs department at Tokyo City Hall. He stamps papers. The stamp simply means that the papers have crossed his desk, not that anything has been done about any of the problems. People with problems come in and are shuttled back and forth between departments, with no one all that eager to accept blame and responsibility. That's how Watanabe lives his life. He comes in to work, he stamps, he leaves. The problems of others have nothing to do with him. It's just part of his existence.

When Ikiru opens, a narrator explains that Watanabe is dying of stomach cancer. Death won't be such a big change for him, the narrator says. Watanabe basically has sleepwalked through life; he's barely alive, anyway.

What follows is heartbreaking. And incredibly moving.

Watanabe, who has never missed a day of work in close to thirty years (he's a month away from the record for perfect attendance), stops going to work following his diagnosis. His doctors tell him it's just an ulcer, but he's already been spooked by another patient in the waiting room. He warns Watanabe: if they tell him it's an ulcer, it's cancer. If they say he can eat anything he's cancer. If they tell him not to worry, do nothing, and let everything take care of's cancer, and he's got between six months to a year to live. Lo and behold, they tell him just that, and Watanabe just crumbles. His existence, pitiful and mundane though it may be, changes in a heartbeat. He's no longer concerned with being the most efficient worker in his department. He hits a bar for the first time and begins to drink, something he's never done. He takes up with a stranger he meets - a writer - who applauds his decision to make the most of life in his waning months, and who shows him around some of the sights he's never experienced: dance halls, strip clubs, pachinko parlors. He's choosing to live as away of protesting his life before. He's not sad, he pissed off.

One of Watanabe's coworkers, Toyo (Miki Odagiri) seeks him out. She needs his stamp so she can leave her job for another. Watanabe starts to feel that Toyo can help him get the most from his remaining months of life. He gives her gifts, buys her dinner. He could seek refuge among friends, if he had any, and so Toyo becomes his friend. At first she thinks he's some sort of lechAs it is, he has his son Mistuo, and Mitsuo's wife (Nobuo Kaneko and Kyko Seki) who live with him. They're more concerned with what they could do with Watanabe's pension, and they're afraid he's squandering it on women. So they don't learn of his illness. He spends more and more time with Toyo, learning to live again, and comes to the realization that he should do at least one worthwhile thing before he dies.

And he does die. I'm not spoiling anything. There is no miracle cure. It's not a dream.

The thing is, he dies with about forty-five minutes left in Ikiru's running time.

The film then jumps back and forth from Watanabe's wake, where former coworkers reflect on him and the worthwhile thing he has done. Has he made his mark? Has he made his life worth living? Look at the film's final shot and you tell me.

Shimura's turn as Watanabe is incredibly strong. He's a Kurosawa vet, so I expecpting strong work, and I certainly wasn't disappointed. At first I was a little annoyed, because I wasn't sure where Shimura was going with it, but it's not difficult to see the sadness and the incredibleness in the performance. He's moving slow, he's hunched over; it's not just the pain from the sickness, it's the fact that he's a shell of a person. When he sings a song in a nightclub that brings the lives of the other patrons to a halt, the emotion is incredible. It's just amazing to watch the transformation within the old man as he comes to the realization that he can do something with his life. To see Watanabe go from a perma-frown to a joyous's a thing of beauty. It's life. He carries the film, and he has to.

I didn't get much of a feel for Kaneko as Mitsuo. He seems to not necessarily be a prick, out for his Dad's money and just being greedy; but because he seems to be of an age where people didn't have a lot of respect for the elder generation, he comes off probably a lot worse than he is. Odagiri shines in her scenes with Shimura. It's easy to see how she essentially breathes life into him. The delight in her face (and subsequently his) when they're ice skating or playing the pachinko games is wonderful.

It's fair to say that Ikiru is Kurosawa's most personal work. It's certainly one of the quietest and most powerful. Ikiru looks beautiful (even on the small screen - the Criterion Collection DVD transfer of the film for this review was pretty much flawless); Kurosawa holds his shots (including numerous close-ups of Shimura's haggard face) to the point of almost discomfort, but then that's probably the point. We feel for Watanabe because we most likely know what he felt; we've probably been in jobs where we just went through the routines of the day-to-day. And hopefully, after seeing Ikiru, we'll feel the urge to do something more, to do something live. Perhaps (hopefully) different from before.

Ikiru has leapt to near the front of the list of my favorite Kurosawa films, right behind Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, but it's a completely different kind of movie than those. A strong performance from Shimura, a good story, and, overall, a beautiful film.

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originally posted: 01/05/04 05:34:23
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User Comments

4/13/15 jokerass lol 1 stars
1/06/15 brandon BORING 1 stars
9/22/10 sunny day Greatest lesson on personal purpose. Laughed my ass off when a Kirby cartoon parodied this. 5 stars
9/17/09 bored mom Eerily relevant across eras. The most important film about worthless garbage bureaucracy. 5 stars
1/20/09 Arthouse Monkey Kurosawa was a GENIUS! This film proves it to all! 5 stars
8/02/07 Shahul Apart from the points already discussed, the composition of various scenes are excellent 5 stars
3/28/07 fools♫gold Where's "Throne of Blood" on this site? 5 stars
1/07/07 Eric P. One of Kurosawa's greatest achievements. 5 stars
10/30/05 Jeanne It's criminal that Takashi Shimura is so little known in the US. He was a chameleon. 5 stars
6/09/05 Agent Sands Although samurai & violence are cool, it's great for AK to do a heartfelt average-joe film. 5 stars
12/18/04 suzukengg the greatest in cinema history 5 stars
8/04/04 Brian Mckay A bit drawn out (esp. in the third act), but exceedingly well-acted and directed. 4 stars
2/20/04 Joel It isn't perfect, but it's the greatest film ever made. 5 stars
1/05/04 Boombah Baby A lacklustre last half hour doesn't particulary hurt a great film, even today. 4 stars
7/29/03 DM If this film doesn't move you, nothing will. Indelible. 5 stars
11/07/02 Zack Truly magnificent, the best Kurosawa film i've seen 5 stars
8/13/02 Cannibus Kurosawa's best! Mastefully done on all respects. Close 2nd: Rashomon/The Seven Samurai 5 stars
4/06/02 Junshi With searing moments and sadness, a emotional movie that may change you. 5 stars
3/05/02 Ashley Quick A masterpiece, a dying man learning to live , wonderful camera angles. 5 stars
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  29-Jan-1960 (NR)
  DVD: 06-Jan-2004



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