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Release Date(s)1952 (November 24, 2015)
Studio(s)Toho (Criterion – Spine #221)
[Editor’s Note: The film portion of this review is by Todd Doogan, while portions of the A/V disc comments are by Bill Hunt.]
True emotion in film is a very hard thing to pull off. Modern day filmgoers are generally too savvy to be manipulated into crying, screaming or cheering just because a filmmaker simply wants them to. But when that emotion does happen, it’s easy for the viewer to forgive the film for any faults it may have, and simply fall in love with it. Such is the case with Ikiru – an all-time classic and one of Kurosawa’s best films, sans samurai.
Ikiru follows the short adventure of Kanji Watanabe (played masterfully by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura). Watanabe is a civil service bureaucrat, who learns that he has inoperable stomach cancer and only has about six months to live.
The shame of all of this is contained in what we learn about Watanabe’s lackluster life. Entering retirement age, Watanabe has grown into a supervisory position for the City. He lives with his disaffected son and daughter-in-law. (His wife died when his son was very young and he, atypically for the Japanese, chose not to re-marry.) Like so many of the classic Japanese “salary men,” Watanabe has lived his life through his job, choosing to focus on work instead of family. In so doing, he’s sacrificed himself, neglecting his own needs as well as those of his son. Now, all he has to show for his life is a citation on his wall, awarded for a job well done.
That may not sound like an uplifting tale, but Ikiru isn’t about the mistakes Watanabe’s made. Rather, it’s about what he does to repair his life in the short amount of time he has left. When faced with the end of his life, Watanabe realizes that he’s made some big mistakes that no one, not even he, can rectify. What is broken will remain broken, and that’s that. But without looking, Watanabe finds something that he can actually make right for himself and others. He takes this opportunity and runs with it, leading to a final act that unfolds as a Citizen Kane-style mystery, until this surprise – and its impact on the people around him (including his son and daughter-in-law) – is finally revealed.
Ikiru isn’t like most other movies, in that Kurosawa puts the viewer in a very voyeuristic position, keeping Watanabe at arm’s length emotionally. He even goes so far as to incorporate an unsympathetic narrator who reveals, right off the bat, that Watanable is going to die. This works surprisingly well however because, in the end, the viewer gets to know (and becomes reinvested in) his character by learning about him just as the other characters in the film do. The audience benefits from his life lessons too. Ikiru is just a remarkable film, full of hope, reality and some wonderful performances.
Before watching Ikiru for the first time, there are a few cultural things to keep in mind that will make the film easier to fully appreciate. First, medical professionals in Japan, even as late as the early 1990s, simply did not discuss probability of death with a patient. It was believed to add undue stress on the situation and was considered rude. Patients usually knew the truth because of certain code words doctors used, but the frankness on such subjects found in the West simply didn’t exist in Japan during the time of this film. Second, stomach cancer, even today, is as common in Japan as heart disease is in America. High rates of stress among the Japanese lead to stomach acid, untreated ulcers and worse. Third, expensive or flashy hats for a Japanese businessman are unheard of. It would be like a 50-year-old American businessman buying a leather biker’s jacket and wearing it everywhere. It drew raised eyebrows and questions. (So “the hat” mentioned in the film is a very uncommon item for someone to purchase out of the blue.) Finally, Japanese business code in the 1950s was strict professionalism. A good worker should arrive at work on time, never take leave (whether for illness or holiday), and should always do exactly what is expected and nothing more – never stand out or show-up a co-worker. Following these rules was the key to life-long employment for a salary man. These things are important in Ikiru, which is nothing if not a snapshot of life in post-war Japan, as evidenced by the Western influence of the young (seen in Watanabe’s son), the bureaucratic system, the rising “salary man” life-style and the notion that one man can make a difference... though not everyone will follow his example.
Though this film has been released on disc before by Criterion, both as a standalone DVD and also as part of their wonderful AK100 DVD box set, it’s new to the Collection on Blu-ray. For this occasion, Criterion has commissioned a new 4K digital high-definition transfer of the film negative, with additional digital restoration. The resulting image is a lovely B&W, presented at the original 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Contrast is quite good, with delicate texturing and fine detail visible. The film certainly shows its age, but the image is quite pleasing nonetheless. The original Japanese audio is included in 2.0 mono in LPCM lossless format (48/24), and sounds good even as it offers no frills. One certainly shouldn’t expect a reference quality presentation, but the picture and sound quality provided here on Blu-ray is likely better than you’ve ever experienced with this film. Naturally, a new (and optional) Japanese subtitle translation has been included.
In terms of extras, everything from the previous standalone DVD release has carried over to the new Blu-ray, including the optional audio commentary from 2003 by historian Stephen Prince, who is always a good listen as he offers abundant and interesting detail on the film and its production. The film’s theatrical trailer is also included, and you get a pair of strong video features too. The first is the 90-minute documentary, A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies, produced in 2000 with the assistance of Kurosawa’s family. Essentially, it examines the way the director worked, from his thoughts on adapting stories, to his storyboard process (each was hand drawn with artistic flourish), to his method of working with actors and crew. Incorporating behind-the-scene footage from Madadayo and Rhapsody in August, it’s a wonderful look into Kurosawa’s world. The other is a 41-minute installment on the making of Ikiru from Toho’s Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create documentary series, highlighted by clips from the film combined with interviews from surviving cast and crew members. It also includes a short biographical look at actor Takashi Shimura. Together, these two features alone make this set a must-have for Kurosawa fans. Finally, the packaging includes an insert booklet offering additional liner notes on the film by Donald Richie.
As you would expect, Criterion’s special edition treatment of this classic is second to none. Kurosawa’s Ikiru is, simply put, a great film, and this new Blu-ray edition is by far the best way to experience it on disc.
- Todd Doogan and Bill Hunt