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Jason Toews and fifi (the band)


Director: Akira Kurosawa
Country: Japan
Year: 1952

“Occasionally, I think of my death… There is, I feel, so much more for me to do. Then I become thoughtful, not sad.”

“Being an artist means not having to avert one’s eyes.”

“So long as my pictures are hits I can afford to be unreasonable. Of course, if they start losing money then I’ve made some enemies.”

“I like unformed characters. This may be because, no matter how old I get, I am still unformed myself.”

(all quotes: Akira Kurosawa)


Just yesterday, I was talking to a co-worker (well, okay, not exactly a co-worker, more like a vendor or contractor, but he’s a cool guy, almost a friend, so I prefer to call him a co-worker), and he mentioned that his girlfriend (note: the word he actually used was “roommate” but the subtext seemed to read “girlfriend” and in any case, you don’t know him from Adam, so let’s just assume that he meant “girlfriend”)(also note: ironically, his name is, in fact, “Adam”) was taking him on a trip to Japan. Wow, I said. That’s awesome, I said, and made some sort of breezy, jocular comment about brushing up on his Japanese cultural knowledge by watching a few Kurosawa films.

That was when he told me that he had never actually seen a Kurosawa film, after which I reverted to calling him a “contractor.”

Never seen a Kurosawa film? Don’t they make kids watch Seven Samurai in high school anymore? How can you justify spending two hours watching the latest Will Ferrell sports comedy, or two episodes of LOST, or four episodes of Two and a Half Men, if you have never set aside an evening to watch and reflect upon the masterpiece that is Rashomon?


Okay, Adam, this one’s for you. Just to get you up to speed, I’ve compiled a little Kurosawa Krash Kourse:

  • Born in 1910; Died in 1998
  • Directed 33 films
  • Wrote or co-wrote most of his own screenplays
  • Edited most of his own films
  • Won 61 international film awards, nominated for 17
  • Visual trademarks: Use of weather to heighten or reflect mood, painterly composition, use of “frame wipe” effect as scene transition, use of telephoto lenses
  • Made an incredible variety of films: hard-boiled, noirish crime dramas (Stray Dog, High and Low); samurai epics (Seven Samurai), revisionist adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays (Ran, Throne of Blood), intimate humanist dramas (Ikiru, Dodesukaden), blackly comic “westerns” (Yojimbo, Sanjuro), and even a film about the friendship between a Russian explorer and an aboriginal Goldi (Nanai) hunter (Dersu Uzala)
  • BFF: Ishiro Hônda (director of Godzilla)
  • Always wanted to make an entry in the Godzilla franchise, but Toho was afraid a Kurosawa Godzilla film would be too expensive (they were probably right)
  • When financing for his films dried up, and after a couple of notable flops, he attempted suicide in 1971 by slashing his wrists thirty times with a razor
  • One of his older brothers died before Akira was born; an older sister died when Akira was 10; his older brother Heigo committed suicide when Akira was in his 20’s
  • I can’t write this any better than our friends at Wikipedia: “Kurosawa was a notoriously lavish gourmet, and spent huge quantities of money on film sets providing an incredibly large quantity of fine delicacies, especially meat, for the cast and crew, although the meat was sometimes left over from recording sound effects of the sound of blades cutting flesh in the many swordfight scenes.”
  • Nicknames: The Emperor, Wind Man
  • Over six feet tall, which is pretty tall for a Japanese man
  • Worshipped U.S. director John Ford
  • Favorite actors to work with: Takashi Shimura (19 films, including Ikiru) and Toshirô Mifune (16 films)
  • Crazy stuff he did to achieve the desired effect: Tinted the rain black with calligrapher’s ink, drained the entire local water supply to create a rainstorm, insisted that a stream be made to run in the opposite direction, ordered the removal (and subsequent replacement) of a house’s roof because he found it unattractive in a brief shot from a moving train, required actors to wear their costumes for several weeks prior to shooting, oh I could go on…
  • Although Western audiences think of Kurosawa’s samurai films as archetypal examples of the genre, Japanese audiences found them atypical. Most Japanese samurai films were set in the 18th and 19th centuries, during a period of peace and intense nationalism, and featured bushido code-adhering samurai. Kurosawa’s samurai films were primarily set in earlier, more chaotic feudal periods, and often featured individualistic “ronin” (masterless samurai).
  • In fact, Kurosawa’s films were consistently reviewed more positively by non-Japanese critics
  • Wife: Yôko Yaguchi, Son: Hisao, Daughter: Kazuko

One more quote from The Emperor:

“I believe that what pertains only to myself is not interesting enough to record and leave behind me. More important is my conviction that if I were to write anything at all, it would turn out to be nothing but talk about movies. In other words, take ‘myself’, subtract ‘movies’, and the result is zero.”

There you go, Adam. Go forth and sin no more.

A little more about today’s film: Rashomon, released in 1950, was Kurosawa’s breakout film, the film that introduced him to Western audiences. In 1952 he made Ikiru, a radically different film, but Ikiru was not released in the U.S. until 1960. By that time, U.S. audiences had seen Seven Samurai (1954) and Throne of Blood (1957), and had formed a narrow view of Kurosawa as a masterful director of period samurai dramas. What, then, to make of this gently humanist fable?

Some critics have called Ikiru a sort of Japanese It’s a Wonderful Life, accusing it of cheap “Carpe Diem” homilies. Others, like critic Richard Brown, see it differently:

Ikiru is a cinematic expression of modern existentialist thought. It consists of a restrained affirmation within the context of a giant negation. What it says in starkly lucid terms is that ‘life’ is meaningless when everything is said and done; at the same time one man’s life can acquire meaning when he undertakes to perform some task that to him is meaningful. What everyone else thinks about that man’s life is utterly beside the point, even ludicrous. The meaning of his life is what he commits the meaning of his life to be. There is nothing else.”


Ikiru begins with the unique combination of an x-ray image and an omniscient narrator: “This stomach belongs to the protagonist of our story…”

From there we are whisked to a Kafka-esque Public Works Department. Our hero, Kanji Watanabe (sometimes called Watanabe-san), is the Section Chief.

Documents are stacked on every available flat surface; the air is filled with cigarette smoke; dead-eyed civil servants while away the hours shuffling papers without end and without purpose. A group of angry citizens from Kuroe complain about a mosquito-infested sewage pond, and are passed from department to department, never receiving a definitive answer.

Again the narrator intrudes, telling us more about Watanabe-san: “It would only be tiresome to meet him right now. He is simply passing time, without actually living his life… Is this really what life is all about? Before our protagonist will take this question seriously, his stomach has to get a lot worse. And he’ll have to waste much, much more time…”

Odagiri is the only woman in the Public Works Department. She is young, vivacious, and clearly does not belong here among the lumbering dinosaurs.

The angry citizens of Kuroe have been shuttled around to every possible department in City Hall, and now find themselves back in Public Works. One frustrated mother loses her patience: “All we want is to get that stinking cesspool cleaned up! We call you people time-killers!”

On the next day, the Section Chief takes his first day off in 30 years, and his co-workers speculate on the reason: “What’s that medicine he’s been taking?”

In fact, Kanji has gone to the hospital; his stomach pain has become unbearable. After sitting in a grim waiting room all day, Kanji is finally told that he has a mild stomach ulcer, which doesn’t sound too bad, until you find out that “mild stomach ulcer” is Japanese doctor-code for “incurable cancer; six months to live.”

Kanji trudges out of the hospital, dazed by the news. After he leaves, the doctor who delivered the bad news now delivers the line upon which the entire film revolves: “What would you do if you only had six months to live?”

Back at home, Kanji’s selfish son (Mitsuo) and bitchy daughter-in-law (Kazue) complain about Kanji’s primitive house (they live with him), and plot to use his retirement bonus to buy a better house of their own.

Kanji is despondent, gazing at the photo of his dead wife, remembering her funeral and his brother urging him to re-marry soon after.

Looking at a baseball bat, his mind wanders back through events in his son’s life: playing on a baseball team, having his appendix removed, leaving home to fight in WWII. He wonders why they have drifted so far apart. Thinking about all of this, Kanji lies in his bed and weeps. On his bedroom wall, we see a certificate for 25 years of distinguished civil service.

For five days, Kanji does not show up at work, and the office is paralyzed; nothing can be done without the Section Chief’s approval!

His son and daughter-in-law fret, mostly because he has mysteriously withdrawn 50,000 yen from his savings account. That’s 50,000 yen they won’t be able to use on a new house! Kanji’s brother, Kiichi, shares his opinion that Kanji is actually a lecher, but a sullen lecher who has stayed celibate for his son’s sake.

Kanji is in a diner, drinking himself into oblivion. “I don’t know what I’ve been doing with my life all these years…” he confides to a novelist he has just met. “I am so furious with myself!” The stranger befriends him, and warns him to stop drinking; that can’t be good for stomach cancer, after all. “I am paying myself back with poison,” Kanji responds, “for the way I have lived my life.”

Kanji’s dilemma prompts the novelist to reflect on the purpose of suffering and the meaning of life (that seems to happen a lot in this movie). “…misfortune teaches us the truth,” he proclaims. “Your cancer has opened your eyes to your own life. We humans are so careless. We only realize how beautiful life is when we chance upon death.”

The novelist offers to be Kanji’s personal Mephistopheles for the night, taking him to raucous pachinko arcades, smoky jazz clubs, and other dens of iniquity. Generally, when a film includes a scene with men “out on the town” or experiencing “one last blow-out” they end up in a strip club, and Ikiru is no exception. The novelist also convinces Kanji to buy a dashing new hat, which he wears through the rest of the film. At a piano bar, Kanji requests the old standard “Life is Brief” (Gondola no Uta) as a taxi dancer lounges in his lap. He croaks the words sadly, tears filling his eyes, as the other patrons watch uncomfortably.


In the morning, Kanji staggers back home, hung over and exhausted. On the way, he is met by Odagiri (remember her?). She needs him to put his official stamp on her resignation; she has found a new job and will be leaving the office.

“I can’t remember a thing I did in that office over the past thirty years…” Kanji admits. “I was just busy.”

Kanji decides to walk with Odagiri to the office. Matsuo and his wife watch, disapproving, from their bedroom window.

Kanji eats lunch with Odagiri, and she amuses him with her nicknames for everyone in the office: Sea-Slug, Flypaper, Daily Special, and my favorite: Ditch-Cover-Board. For the first time, we see Kanji laugh. Finally, she reveals her nickname for him: The Mummy. Ouch.

They spend the day together. Kanji is enamored of her youth, her vitality. At dinner, he tells her why he has worked so hard, why he has given up everything: “For my son’s sake. But he doesn’t seem to give a whit.” (I thought he said “shit” at first, but nope: it’s “whit”.)

Odagiri doesn’t want to hear it: “My mother gives me the same line sometimes: ‘The things I’ve suffered for you!'” Here, Odagiri embodies one of the other themes of the film: Though adults may work themselves to death and sacrifice personal happiness for the sake of their children… those damn kids have no appreciation.

That night, Kanji tries to tell his son about his condition, but Mitsuo doesn’t want to hear it. “We have certain rights as your heirs!” he thunders, berating his father for the withdrawn money and for his shameful behavior with a younger woman.

Kanji pursues his friendship with Odagiri, but she has clearly lost interest. “Why do you follow me around like this?” she demands. “You give me the creeps.”

“When I look at you,” Kanji tells her, “it warms me up… Why are you so incredibly alive? I want to live that that, just for one day, before I die!”

Odagiri urges him to quit his job, to go out and make something, do something. “It’s too late,” Kanji says, despairingly. After a moment’s thought, however, he has an idea: “There is something I can do! I just have to find the will…”

This is the last we see of Odagiri, which is good, because she was starting to irritate me.

The next morning, Kanji returns to the Public Works office, and begins searching through the stack of accumulated paperwork. Finally, he finds what he has been looking for, and announces to the office that, bureaucratic protocol be damned, they are going to fix that infernal cesspool and build a park in its place! Kanji strides purposefully from the office, followed by several of his befuddled employees.

Before telling us what happened with the cesspool project, before even showing us the expected death scene, the story skips ahead five months, to Kanji’s wake. The remainder of the film is made up of conversations between the mourners, and flashbacks triggered by those conversations.

Reporters interrupt the wake to question the Deputy Mayor: Why did you take credit for the park, when we all know it was Watanabe-san who kept the plan alive, who made it happen? Why was he denied any mention in your dedication speech? And also: Why did Watanabe-San die in the park he cared so much about? Was it a form of silent protest for being snubbed at the dedication ceremony? All excellent questions, but not questions that the Deputy Mayor is inclined to answer.

Back inside, the Deputy Mayor angrily makes his case to the gathered mourners, as the sweetly smiling face of Kanji watches from a framed photograph. Watanabe-san did nothing special, rants the Deputy Mayor. If anyone deserves credit, it’s the Parks Department. Or, come to think of it, ME. Before he can finish his revisionist history of the cesspool project, however, the residents of Kuroe arrive to burn incense for their beloved Watanabe-san. They weep loudly before his picture, saddened by the loss of the single city official who fought for them. Their unabashed grief makes the other city officials uncomfortable.

Soon after, the Deputy Mayor and his assistants leave. The remaining city officials gather closer to the altar and speak more openly. “I don’t care what anyone says, it was Watanabe-san who built that park.”

“Why would anyone with his personality suddenly up and change like that?”

They ask Watanabe-san’s son Mitsuo if he knew that he had terminal cancer. “If he knew, I’m sure he would have told me…”

Watanabe-san’s brother Kiichi insists that his change of heart was due to the attentions of a mistress.

In flashbacks, Watanabe-san visits the cesspool in the rain and his plan begins to take shape.

He begins making the rounds of city departments, trying to convince the department heads that it would be a good thing to clear up that cesspool and build a park. He brings the mothers of Kuroe to the Deputy Mayor’s office, to lobby for the plan.

Back at the wake: “A lowly section chief openly defying the Deputy Mayor made history at City Hall!”

Eventually, we learn, Watanabe-san’s dogged determination wore down the entrenched bureaucracy, and the park was completed. Still, some of the mourners argue, was it worth it? Why spend the last five months of your life filling out paperwork and lobbying the Deputy Mayor?

The Pro-Kanji contingent is undeterred: “The world is a dark place if his dedication was worthless.”

In more flashbacks, we see Watanabe-san, increasingly gaunt, dark circles around his eyes, limping painfully from department to department at City Hall, being threatened by local thugs, collapsing at the construction site, and struggling to stay alive long enough to see his beloved park completed.

“Doesn’t it make you furious, the way they walk over you like that?” his assistant asks him, after one particularly frustrating meeting.

“I can’t afford to hate people,” Kanji responds, quietly. “I haven’t got that kind of time.”

As his co-workers get increasingly drunk, more stories pour forth – Watanabe-san’s strange reaction to a beautiful sunset, mysterious comments that have become poignant in retrospect.

The only way they can make sense of his passionate commitment to the park project is if he knew that he was about to die. Only that would explain such selflessness, they agree. But then they are prompted to ask whether they would have done the same, in his shoes.

“Compared to Watanabe-san… we’re all worthless scum!” one shouts.

“I didn’t used to be this way, when I started at City Hall…” another muses, sadly.

“You’re not supposed to do anything there! Doing anything but nothing is radical!”

They comfort themselves that the system is broken; it is impossible to accomplish anything within that bureaucratic madhouse. But then a member of the Pro-Kanji contingent disabuses them of their cheap self-comfort: “Even within a system where you can’t get anything done, and battling stomach cancer at that, Watanabe-san managed to accomplish so much!”

Nobody can argue with this. They sit in silence around Kanji’s photo, lost in reflection.

A policeman has found Watanabe-san’s famous hat in the park. He is invited to join the wake. He reveals that he met Watanabe-san in the park, after sunset on the night of his death. It was snowing outside, a white blanket covering the tidy new park. Kanji sat on a swing, smiling.

The officer considered taking him in to the station, but “he looked so happy.” Sitting on the swing, in the moonlight, snow falling, Kanji sang a song to himself: “Life is Brief,” the same song he sang in the bar earlier:

Life is brief
Fall in love, maidens
Before the crimson bloom
Fades from your lips
Before the tides of passion
Cool within you
For those of you
Who know no tomorrow

Life is brief
Fall in love, maidens
Before your raven tresses
Begin to fade
Before the flames in your hearts
Flicker and die
For those to whom
Today will never return

Mitsui takes the hat and weeps. Watanabe-san left an envelope behind, he tells his wife, containing all of the information for expediting his retirement bonus, just before he went to the park.

Back at the office, it’s business as usual: “Your complaint is a matter for Engineering…” Kanji’s former assistant, momentarily agitated, stands up… but then sits down again, hanging his head in defeat.

That night, he visits the park in Kuroe and watches the children play as the sun sets.

What I Liked

What is not to love? My emotional response to Ikiru was so powerful that it’s a bit difficult to dissect on a technical level, but here are some of the things that I particularly enjoyed:

Takashi Shimura’s performance as Kanji Watanabe was flawless. Ikiru contains potentially melodramatic elements, but Shimura never plays it that way. His marvelously expressive face, his slumped posture, his sad eyes tell us everything we need to know. He doesn’t say very much, but we hang on every word.

The comedic elements, like the montage of the frustrated citizens being passed from one city department to another, are genuinely funny and not played too broadly.

The structure of Ikiru is fairly radical, starting with a narrator who tells us that the main character isn’t very interesting, then – just as we get invested in his rebirth – skipping ahead five months, seemingly robbing us of important scenes. The second half of the film revolves largely around secondary and tertiary characters talking about the protagonist, who has died off-screen. I’m sure on paper this sounded weird at the time, but it works brilliantly. Nothing about the structure seems unnatural or stilted; rather, it flows organically toward a devastating emotional climax.

What I Didn’t Like So Much

I didn’t much care for the music; I find the score on these older Japanese films to be kinda screechy and overly strident at times.

I was disappointed that there were absolutely no interesting female characters. The only two women who featured at all prominently were Kanji’s employee, Odagiri, and Kanji’s daughter-in-law, who I think was named Kazue (somebody please correct me if I’m wrong on that). Both were unlikable, crabby, and shallow.

Should You See It?

Yes, yes, yes. Do a little mental preparation beforehand, because it’s fairly long, subtitled, black and white, and it revolves around social mores that will seem alien. Have some patience, though, and I wager you’ll be crying at the end, just like I was. Even now, every time I think of the final scenes, I tear up. Ikiru is a deeply felt, beautifully made film about fighting meaninglessness with positive action, no matter how seemingly insignificant. It made me want to DO something, to BUILD something, and that’s something few films manage to accomplish. Highly recommended.

Next: The Importance of Being Earnest


  1. Well said, Theresa! Thanks for pointing out things we had missed or glossed over, like the sound design, the metaphorical correlation to Japanese society at the time, etc. I always appreciate your insights.

  2. Although it is very long, this is a rich gem of a movie, exploring the brevity of life, finding meaning in it, and, like the rest of the Janus Collection, showing a wonderful glimpse of life in another culture during another time. (Broken record, I know, but I can’t help myself.)

    For most of the film “our protagonist” Kanji Watanabe is bent over, head hanging down, face fallen, in visible pain, whether from his disease, from his perception of personal and professional failure, or both.

    Having spent the last seven years hanging its head in shame after surrendering at the end of WWII, I can also feel, through this movie, Japan’s pain and the beginnings of its search for a new identity and direction.

    I did get a little weary of Watanabe’s (Takashi Shimura) bug-eyed frown, but that made it all the more dramatic when he was laughing with the young lady from his office, Odagiri. He looked like an entirely different person then. Although his acting was somewhat overly dramatic, and the camera shots of his face were sometimes too drawn out, he and the other actors did a superb job of conveying the myriad of emotions they were experiencing, all within a traditional Japanese reserve.

    The video quality was fantastic, and some of the camera angles that I especially enjoyed were 1) the scene in the (first) bar when Watanabe and his new writer-friend are both looking down at the dog eating the scraps that W. has just tossed on the floor; 2) the multiple uses of the steep stairs in W.’s home; 3) W.’s son leaving for war, with the long shot of the train moving into the distance and all the people waving flags and cheering “Banzai!”; 4) the absolute mass of dancing humanity underneath the clownishly dressed musicians and their trombones; 5) the subtle elegance of the barmaid in the (second?) bar, when she is reaching for the bottle off the top shelf and holds her sleeve back so as not to inadvertently knock any glasses off the lower shelf; and 6) how the director kept the camera (and us) safely behind a fence, or a counter, or a window glass while, on the other side, W. and his writer-friend are struggling through the mob of good-time girls and guys.

    I also enjoyed the welding shop scene, which really brought to light the skillful use of sound in this movie. Watanabe is surrounded by silence while he is walking along the street, dead before his death. We start seeing flashes of light coming from inside a building, and suddenly the living world is full of noise when W. awakens to it, and then we realize that it is a welding shop. It was a little annoying to have to keep turning the volume up and down all the time. I wish the remastering could address that issue, but I have zero knowledge on what can and can’t be done with movie audio.

    I also found this to be the first film in which the Japanese men were usually whispering and the women were the harsh or shrill ones. Most other movies that I have watched that portray Japanese have had the exact opposite vocal qualities, where the women are whispering in beautiful little-girl voices and the men are speaking in loud guttural and gruff tones.

    The use of the air-raid siren when Watanabe headed out of the office to go inspect the park was a bit much. I understand the symbolism that can be inferred, but there was no narrative context for the siren. However, a skillful juxtaposition was the sound of the dog yelping from a boot in the butt at the end of the first bar scene, followed immediately by the sound of the melodious tinkling of the pachinko balls in the next scene. (Pachinko, “a vending machine of dreams and infatuations.” Ha!)

    The music was also used with a modest but pointed touch. When Watanabe and his writer-friend are in the car with the two girls that they picked up from along the way somewhere, I laughed when they started singing “Come on-a My House.” The “Happy Birthday” song was used too much, but it was effective in making me think more closely about what was going on at the moment (W.’s re-birth). And I am still amazed at how W. sang the main song, Life is Brief, without moving his lips!

    I also noticed with this movie that even though it was subtitled, I really needed and wanted to hear the voices, to understand the emotional nuances being conveyed, especially and mostly by Shimura/Watanabe.

    The direction was also superb, with an unexpected light-heartedness at times, given the heaviness of the story. For example, while Watanabe is in the medical clinic, waiting to be called for his test results, and another patient is explaining to him the symptoms (all of which W. has) of stomach cancer, it is as if they are almost playing musical chairs. And when W. and Odagiri are walking down the street, after W. buys her new stockings, she is almost dancing around him, with a mixture of pleasure and awkwardness at accepting the gift. I also enjoyed the (third?) bar scene where the first girl hanging on the Jerry Lee Lewis-like piano player gets jealous of the second girl, a talented dancer, and pulls the piano stool out from behind “Jerry Lee,” who then falls on his butt but continues right on playing, only missing a beat or two. The choreography of movements in these scenes was playful and clever.

    Some of my favorite lines from this movie were from Watanabe’s explanation of his situation to his writer-friend: “But…I can’t die. I’ll just up and die on them. I want to, but…I can’t…die. In other words, I can’t bring myself to die. … Drinking this expensive sake is like paying myself back with poison for the way I lived all these years. In other words, I mean, it feels awful, but it feels good at the same…” The writer-friend tells Watanabe that for the night, he will be his Mephistopheles. (He does not search for men to corrupt [like the Devil] but comes to serve and ultimately collect the souls of those who are already damned. Wikipedia.) I also enjoyed Odagiri’s reprimand of Watanabe: “But you can’t blame it all on your son…not unless he asked you to make a mummy of yourself. Parents are all the same. My mom gives me the same kind of line sometimes. ‘The things I’ve suffered for you.’ And I’m grateful she had me. But it’s not my fault I was born.”

    I can say from my own experience that as of 1977, it was still normal procedure in Japan (and especially Okinawa), if you needed to get something accomplished, that you would get passed off from department to department, like the mothers who wanted the park. (They were passed off almost 20 times!) Also, if you were patient and sat in a submissive posture, “losing face” for long enough, like Watanabe did while trying to move the park forward, someone would eventually go ahead and help you with whatever you needed.

    Also, “slurping noodles” is a gross understatement.

    The English songs, the stockings, the restaurant-row thugs made up to look so Americanized Mafioso — those things all made me actually sad, to see Western influence creeping into Eastern culture. But I loved seeing that the Eastern sake drunkenness that takes over at the wake is just the same as any other [fill in the blank] drunkenness anywhere else in the world.

    It was very sad to see that the bureaucrats went right back to s.n.a.f.u., even the one who really got the message. Seeing him cave was for me the most depressing moment of the movie. I was also touched by realizing how people can live together, eat together, and sleep in the same house together and still not know anything about each other. It makes me want to pay closer attention to the world around me and those who inhabit it.

    This was a wonderful film, and I am looking forward to watching the other Kurosawa films in the Janus Challenge.

  3. Ikiru is the movie that completely changed my movie watching. I am not kidding. There was this song with a lyric about Kurosawa in it a while back and it was on my mind while walking through the library… and there was Ikiru on DVD with the haunting image of the old man on the swing.

    I knew I was missing something and ended up watching all but one of Kurosawa’s films in very short order after that.

    Ikiru opened me up to Asian cinema. I had watched some martial arts flicks, but really?

    I devoured these films. A friend at work gave me a hard time about my obsession as I was using three different library systems and Scarecrow to be able to see them all. And God Bless IMDB…

    Takashi Shimura is my favorite actor of his generation. I love Mifune, but to me Shimura was even better. His performance here is flawless.

    I don’t want to repeat too much so I will mostly point out here that what Jason has written is so spot on that I simply nodded in agreement while reading it.

    The one thing I do want to discuss is that I really feel that Ikiru was a film with two purposes. The literal interpretation of the film as about the value of human life was clearly something that Kurosawa wants his viewers to see. But, this movie was made during post-WW2 reconstruction of Japan. I feel that Kurosawa wanted his Japanese audience (let’s face it, a bunch of Americans reviewing his film 57 years later were not the target audience) to get a sense that Kanji was old Japan. He is dying off and faced with letting it happen without change or doing something to make the world better in the future for some children. The message of an older Japanese man taking on the rigid structure that had survived the war to bring forth a fresh start for Japanese children could not have been lost on its contemporary audience.


  4. I will be adding a bigger review of this soon, but my feelings about this movie seem to mirror Jason.

    This movie altered my movie watching. Once I watched this I went on a Kurosawa binge, leaving only one of his films that I have not yet watched … or been able to find.

    More soon.

  5. In the film “Last Holiday” – Queen Latifah plays a woman named Georgia Byrd who, after learning she has a terminal illness goes to Europe, and encounters some politicians and tells them what she thinks. You go girl!

    In the film “The Bucket List” – Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman choose to do all the things on their “bucket list” (all those things you’ve ever wanted to do before you kick the bucket). Octogenarian hijinks ensue! You go grandpa!

    “Ikiru” is, THANK THE HEAVENLY LORD ABOVE, nothing like those crappy slap dash, formulaic, Hollywood cookie-cutter, made by committee, pieces of shit.

    “Ikiru” starts with our protagonist slaving away in a crappy desk job. Our narrator explains that our protagonist has stomach cancer and he will die…soon…but, heck, he’s already dead anyway. Then we follow the story of how some sweet ladies want a landfill filled in and a park put in. The ladies request gets buffeted around a bureaucratic system like a ball in a pinball machine. No one takes responsibility, everyone pushes the responsibility off.

    As to our hero, Watanabe, he’s given up. Blowing his nose on an efficiency report he wrote once, but now takes up space in a drawer. He is, nearly, literally, dead.

    We soon learn, through flashbacks, that Watanabe was happy once. Had a wife, a son, a bit of a life. But his wife died when his son was young and he’s had his job for the past 25 to 30 years (just recently passing the 30 year mark).

    When he goes to the doctor due to some stomach pains he has a chance run-in with some schmo who describes to Watanabe all the ailments for stomach cancer. By Watanabe’s expressions, we know that these are all ailments that he has. Watanabe KNOWS he has stomach cancer and will die within a year, even though a doctor ignores his questions and just says it’s an ulcer (or something minor).

    Realizing he is, in fact, the walking dead…Watanabe runs away from home.

    His son and his wife, who live with him, panic. But not in a way that a son and/or daughter-in-law would panic (like: “Where is he? Is he dead?”). No, their concern is their financial wellbeing.

    When we find Watanabe, he is in a bar giving out his sleeping pills. He strikes up a friendship with another patron and they hit the town. Drinking heavily, dancing, meeting women and in a moment of extreme pathos, singing a song.

    Back at the company the other co-workers wonder where he’s gone to. But, in some ways, they don’t care. They only care if it affects their job.

    When Watanabe returns home, he can’t bear to tell his son what is wrong with him but he soon hooks up with a former co-worker. A gal young enough to be his grand-daughter. Their friendship is a very sweet one but she can’t deal with the mumbling, sickly, nearly incoherent Watanabe who only wants to live like she lives. To show his appreciation he buys her stockings and wastes a little money on her – only to see his son get all uppity about wasting money and bringing home such a young girl (even the maid is shocked!).

    Angry at his son’s inability to see that his father is finally finding some happiness, Watanabe disowns his son to the girl. When she finally says that all she does is build things and that why doesn’t he build something…he goes back to work.

    Remember the park from Act one? Watanabe decides that he’s going to make that park.

    ***LETS CUT HERE FOR A MOMENT TO A HOLLYWOOD FILM: Watanabe shows up at the work site. He takes a shovel and starts working. The frail, sickly man digs and works until his shovel breaks. He then uses his hands. When his hands get arthritis, he uses his elbows. The small town sees his dedication and they rally around him, kids, elders, stray animals all pitch in and the park becomes this beautiful piece of work, stunning to behold. The park is named after Watanabe, a statue is erected, the young girl realizes how much she loves the old guy and returns to him. The son forgives him and everyone hugs in the end.***

    But in this film? You go from Watanabe swearing to make the park to the next scene and the narrator saying: “Five months later our protagonist has died.”

    LOUD ALBUM SCRATCHING. What? What the…? Uh?

    Now, this film is 2 hours and 23 minutes and I check the time and I’m thinking…there’s still 50 minutes to go here and we’re at the wake? Did I miss something? Where’s the making the park? Where’s the dirt? Where’s the collapsing in the summer heat? Where’s the reconciliation? Where the HELL is Hollywood?

    And then I quickly thank God, again, that Hollywood is not to be found here…

    What follows is a wake filled with all the bureaucrats from the opening scenes. The DEPUTY MAYOR is there for Gosh Sakes! All the important people are there and they are burning incense and drinking sake. When the Deputy Mayor is called out to a quick press conference, he is told that the word on the street is that he’s a failure. That Watanabe built that park, that there was no mention of him in the speech, that the Deputy Mayor was POLITICKING and Watanabe was all but forgotten.

    Rebuffed by this, the Deputy Mayor takes his place of honor at the Wake and then starts quickly making excuses upon which everyone else starts to chime in. Scoffing at the very IDEA that Watanabe built this park. Within moments everyone is making excuses, everyone is taking the glory, everyone is patting themselves on the back. Until…

    A group of women come in. Sobbing, praying, heart-broken, they cry and burn incense. It suddenly becomes very real for everyone there that, indeed, Watanabe built the park.

    After the women leave, the Deputy Mayor and his close associates leave the rest of the bureaucrats to continue the wake. Then, as the sake starts to flow, the stories come out and we are witness to flashbacks of Watanabe going to every department and being a total pain in the ass to get the park built. His persistence, his drive, his dogged determination as he fights to build that one thing that would give meaning to his life.

    The drinks and stories flow, and though they don’t want to admit it, they all realize that they’re just a dead as Watanabe was…

    During this re-awakening, a police officer shows up with Watanabe’s hat (a white stylish hat purchased while drinking/dancing/carousing). It was found in the park. The Officer feels guilt for not taking in the assumed drunken vagrant but, as he puts it: “While he was swinging, he looked soooo happy.”

    Kurosawa (the director) cuts to a wonderful scene of Watanabe singing in the snow while swinging in the park he pushed to have built.

    After the police officer leaves, the son admits that he found his father’s check book and note under the stairs. The father DID know he was going to die (as this was a bit of the conversation at the wake) and he left his money to his son and his wife.

    When the sake has flowed through a couple more rounds, the assembled men are determined to change their lives. Be MORE like Watanabe. Not get caught up in all the bullshit and actually accomplish something.

    The last scene, when they have a moment to do what Watanabe did, and then do not do it…is very heart-breaking but solidly true to life.

    What I liked:

    Oh my God, where do I start? This film is WONDERFUL. Magical. Special. Even writing this stupid little review I’m tearing up again. The main character is fantastic. Everything about this film is just spot on. The subtext, the story, the acting…I could go on and on and on.

    What I didn’t like:

    I would have liked some closure to the relationship between Watanabe and the young girl. I would have liked her to come to the wake and talk about him but, golly, that would have been SOOOOO Hollywood. Plus, she knew far more than anyone else did about his condition.

    But that is the most minor of issues…I wonder why I brought it up.

    Bottom line:

    A life changing, life affirming, beautiful piece of art. Buy it. Watch it.

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