1952; directed by Akira Kurosawa; written by Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni; 143 mins
There is an argument to say that the film‘s protagonist, Kanji Watanabe, never actually knows he has cancer. After all, we know that the doctors lied to him, telling him he simply has an ulcer. The guy in the waiting room told him that they’d say this and that it would actually be cancer. So, is it that he just needed some major scare to act as an impetus to make him do something with his life? Thinking about about it that way kinda adds to the film’s critique of emotionally shut-off bureaucrats, officials and the middle class at large. Watanabe is a good man who has done nothing and through the film’s non-linear timeline, we see that he probably always knew that. It’s the search for that something to do that the film uses as a way to explore how we live our lives and why we allow ourselves to get bogged down by excuses as an excuse in themselves.
When films like this, which purport to be about ‘LIFE’ come along they are usually told from an older, male perspective but consider that while the film is sympathetic to Watanabe, he is set up as a fool character: gullible, easily led, cowardly and clingy. His arc, however, is not about him getting a gun and killing everyone who annoys him but about the long road to self-realisation and understanding of others. We get there through the self-pitying drunken odyssey through Japanese nitelife, via an uncomfortable friendship with a younger woman from work to attempted reconciliation with his adult son.
Whether it takes in all of life’s tapestry, I dunno but the more I think about Ikiru (To Live), the more so many aspects ring true even today. It’s telling that, whilst in it’s use of song, rationality and Asakazu Nakai‘s deep-focus cinematography, it reminded me respectively of Key Largo, The Best Years of Our Lives and 12 Angry Men, another film which also cropped up was this year’s I, Daniel Blake. The film’s depiction of bureaucratic indifference still resonates today but this film also flags up what it takes, a lot of the time, for one man to do anything at all. The film is both optimistic and pessimistic whilst still having a clear message about Watanabe’s essential goodness.
Takashi Shimura is sheer croaky, creaky brilliance in the main role, amazing to think that the same actor would be an action superstar two years later in Seven Samurai. Great too to see so many Kurosawa players (including four of the seven Samurai) turning up in roles that have agency no matter how small. Praise should definitely go, though, to Miki Odagiri who is bubbly and down-to-earth as one-time employee, Toyo and who is thankfully saved by the smart screenplay from becoming a two-dimensional harridan.
I genuinely found myself moved by this film. After 64 years, it still stands tall on it’s humanitarian morals whilst being perfectly clear-eyed about what people must do to better the world around them.