Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Day Seventy-Five: Ikiru

Ranking on IMDb Top 250: #244
Year: 1952
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Takashi Shimura and Shinichi Himori

In my blog post two days ago on Rashomon, I mentioned that I saw a lot of stylistic similarities between the work of Akira Kurosawa and that of Ingmar Bergman. When I said that, I was mainly referring to Bergman's work on The Seventh Seal. Now as I sit down to write about Ikiru, Kurosawa's tragic 1952 drama starring Takashi Shimura as a loveless bureaucrat dying of stomach cancer, I once again see the opportunity to draw a comparison with a work of Bergman's – this time, Wild Strawberries. Both movies are meditations on aging and dying, on on seizing the day and, especially, on giving life meaning. And just as The Seventh Seal came out after Rashomon, Wild Strawberries came out after Ikiru. That isn't to call Bergman a plagiarist; he was just one of the more talented people to be inspired by the great work of Akira Kurosawa.

In stark contrast to Kurosawa's more famous samurai films, Ikiru takes place in then-modern Japan and focuses on real issues of the day. Its protagonist is diagnosed with an ulcer – which he knows is code for stomach cancer – and is given six months to live in the first fifteen minutes of the film. From there, he tries to give his life the meaning that it had never had. The remainder of the film can be divided into thirds – his crazy night on the town with a stranger he met in a bar, his creepy-yet-endearing relationship with a young female coworker, and his wake. In the first third, Watanabe tries to enjoy himself by living to excess. He drinks, he sees a strip show, he hangs out with prostitutes, but the void inside him remains unfilled. In perhaps the film's most tragic scene, he sits in a chair at a dance hall, detached from everything going on around him, until the piano player asks for requests. He asks for "Life Is Brief," a minor-key dirge about seizing the day that he sings along to and, in so doing, realizes its implications for his own life. Tears well in his eyes and he realizes that what he's doing is not fixing anything.

In the next third, Watanabe tries to kindle a relationship with a beautiful former subordinate from his office. He sees her almost every day, but she eventually confronts him, telling him that he's making her feel uncomfortable. He reveals that he's dying of cancer and that he looked to her to try to learn how to live in a carefree way. She isn't able to give him very good advice, but he makes the best of it and resolves to do something meaningful in his job for the first time in his career. In the last third, we open with a portrait of Watanabe at an altar with his friends, family, and coworkers gathered around. It is his wake, and through the words of those in attendance and a number of tasteful flashback scenes, we learn that Watanabe had become more vocal at his job and became dedicated to build a park on top of a cesspool of disease-ridden water. We furthermore learn that he succeeded. He died at that park that he built, and in an iconic closing shot, we see Watanabe sitting on a swing there, singing "Life Is Brief" as he did in the club earlier in the film. The lyrics capture the essence of the film so well that it seems they were written for it:

"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 his hands take up his boat,
Before the flush of his cheeks fades,
For those of you who will never return here.

Life is brief. Fall in love, maidens,
Before the boat drifts away on the waves,
Before the hand resting on your shoulder becomes frail,
For those who will never be seen here again.

Life is brief. Fall in love, maidens,
Before the raven tresses begin to fade,
Before the flame in your hearts flicker and die,
For those to whom today will never return."

Akira Kurosawa shows unparalleled versatility as a director with this film, and after three days of watching his movies, I'm prepared to consider him one of my favorite directors. Ikiru has a very clear-cut message, but it isn't weighed down by it. Instead, its darkness bears light, and it allows it to flourish as not only a character study, but as something greater and more universal. In many ways, this is one of the most influential movies I've ever seen. There's shades of its storytelling devices, its cinematography, its screenplay, its plot, and its performances in hundreds of films and television shows that have come out since its release. Seeing the source of so many of those well-known tropes evidences just how effortlessly Kurosawa transcends them. Ikiru is one of the greatest movies in the history of foreign cinema. Denying that isn't opinion; it's ignorance.

The Good: The first time Watanabe sings "Life Is Brief," I didn't know whether to cry with him, cut my wrists, or crawl out of my skin. The scene was beautifully shot, and, of course, it beautifully set up the ending.

The Bad: Nothing comes to mind.

The Skinny: #244 is criminally low. If the same movie were shot by an American or English director at the same time, this would be in the Top 100.


  1. This is Kurisowa's best film.
    An absolute masterpiece on every level.
    I cry like a baby.
    It's spectacular!!!

  2. Just watched it. Certainly a good movie, but I guess I am just not as sentimental as some others. My Kurosava top for the moment:
    1.Ran 9/10
    2.Seven Samurai 8/10
    3.Ikiru 7.5/10
    4.Rashomon 7/10