What would you do if you had six months to live?
Similar questions have been explored on film over the last few decades, but none provide a level of affirmation quite like Ikiru ('To Live'), Akira Kurosawa's 1952 masterpiece. In many ways, it's been overshadowed by two other Kurosawa films that were released shortly before and after: Rashomon and Seven Samurai, arguably his most recognized efforts. However, Ikiru is an entirely different kind of story...it has much more in common with Kurosawa's later masterpiece, Red Beard. This is one of Kurosawa's most understated efforts...and one of his most mature.
The opening sequence informs us that the main character, Kanji Watanabe, has been diagnosed with stomach cancer, and will soon fall victim to this horrible disease. Faced with the reality of a slow death, Watanabe grows insecure about his own life's efforts. His relationship with his adult son is shaky at best, and his friends are few and far between. His wife has already passed away. He has toiled behind a desk for 30 years, never getting much out of his job other than his pay. When he sits in solitude, it's hard not to feel sorry for the guy. On the rare occasion when he smiles, it's hard not to smile back. In short, it's nearly impossible to watch this tale unfold and not be moved by the sheer volume of emotions shown by a man who knows he's going to die soon. Masterfully portrayed by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura, Kanji Watanabe is one of the most fully-realized characters ever seen in film.
Watanabe is the heart and soul of Ikiru. He's present in nearly every scene, and commands attention even while trying to remain unnoticed by others. He walks sadly through the streets, sits quietly in a darkened room...and yet still has a strong presence. Even later, at his own wake, his picture casts a somber mood over the proceedings. Here is a man who spent most of his adult life hunched over a desk, completing menial tasks at a job that offered little in return. Faced with the reality of death, he tries to find some meaning in what little time he has left. In comparison with the previously-mentioned Red Beard, the main character eventually finds peace through kindness to his fellow man. Sometimes, even the smallest of gestures can change the course of an entire life.
Divided into two parts, Ikiru takes a very unusual path in the way it unfolds. Like Kurosawa's excellent High and Low, the climax seems to appear halfway through the film. The first half of Ikiru primarily focuses on the futility of clinging to life. Watanabe tries everything to find happiness and affirmation, but always reverts back to his sorrowful state. The only real happiness he finds during this dark time is in the form of a younger female co-worker, played with infectious joy by Miki Odagiri. Through his time spent with this young lady, Watanabe begins work on a project that will provide this much-needed affirmation (although the details are not revealed until much later in the film). The second half almost begins from square one, now focusing on the results of Watanabe's new-found determination. Told in a series of sequential flashbacks, these scenes allow the viewer to witness every side of this Watanabe's last months of existence. The film's description on the packaging sums it up quite nicely: "...A multifaceted look at a life through a prism of perspectives, resulting in a full portrait of a man who lacked understanding from others in life."
It's hard to watch Ikiru and not notice the stunning compositions by Akira Kurosawa. Above, a man at Watanabe's former place of employment has just spoken up against the man who has replaced the deceased Watanabe. After initially showing signs of protest, the man quickly backs down, returning silently to his desk. Dejected, the man lowers his head, symbolically 'buried alive' is his own paperwork. It's a scene that is especially relevant today, as more people are literally working themselves to death. Endless paperwork, meaningless tasks, needless details. Sound familiar?
Modern films have followed suit, asking similar questions and only hinting at answers. Perhaps the most similar film in recent memory is About Schmidt, which holds similar plot elements: a man's dead-end job forces him to examine his own life, resulting in a search to find happiness and affirmation for these wasted years. However, there's a strong message in films like these: "the key to your own happiness can only be found if you're willing to look for it." Ikiru is a rare gem in cinema...a film that is emotional, but not preachy or overly sentimental; uplifting, but not unrealistic. It's nearly perfect in execution, and deserves to be held in high regard by any serious film lover.
This new DVD release comes to us from the fine folks over at Criterion. Akira Kurosawa's films have been represented well on many former occasions, but Ikiru is something of a milestone. Presented in an excellent new 2-disc Special Edition, this is one of the finest presentations of any classic film on DVD you're likely to experience. From the polished remastering efforts to the excellent bonus features, this is one DVD you won't want to pass by! Ikiru is a film that has long deserved the royal treatment, and this release is just what the doctor ordered.
Quality Control Department
This is truly a four-star effort from Criterion. While it could never be confused with a modern movie in terms of overall visual cleanliness, this is by far the best Ikiru has ever looked (at least from my personal experience). Blacks are very solid, and the contrast is excellent as well…most black and white films this old suffer from loss of detail and muddy grays, but I hope the screen captures in this review are sufficient proof of Criterion's restoration efforts. Bear in mind, there are still a great number of defects present: the image flickers and fades on occasion (especially during some of the darker scenes), the picture shakes a bit, and some scene transitions and dissolves appear "crackly" with a mild amount of dirt and noise. However, problems like these have to be expected: the movie is over 50 years old, and most foreign films of that era weren't exactly stored in the best conditions. The only other format I've seen this on was VHS, and it wasn't pretty. While the original aspect ratio of 1.33:1 wasn't affected, that print was washed-out, faded, and full of debris. Unfortunately, I haven't been able to compare this DVD with Criterion's laserdisc. If anyone out there can comment on the differences between the two, send me an e-mail. It was a real pleasure to see the fine visual efforts by Criterion, and the problems inherent in the print will in no way hinder your viewing of this film.
The audio is also top-notch for this DVD release. In many ways, it's nearly identical in quality to the visual presentation: beautifully restored, but still containing imperfections from the source material. The highs can sound a little distorted and 'tinny' (especially some of the music, or louder dialogue and sound effects), but you'll be able to follow along with no problems. Dialogue is easily heard (most viewers will be paying attention to the subtitles anyway), and overall sound quality is very clean. There's a bit of hissing that pops up on occasion, but this is due to the source material, and isn't really distracting anyway. While there's nothing for your subwoofer or surround channels to do here, I wouldn't have it any other way...this is a classic film, respectfully preserved without any artificial remixing. For a mono track that's over 50 years old, it's no secret that Ikiru sounds surprisingly good for its age. Again, this can't compare in quality to modern films, but it's as good as we're going to get for now. Overall, this is another amazing effort from Criterion.
Finally, a Kurosawa film gets the two-disc treatment, and I couldn't be happier! Included for your enjoyment are an audio commentary and the film's theatrical trailer on Disc One, and a pair of lengthy documentaries on Disc Two. Here are a few comments on the bonus features themselves:
Audio Commentary with Stephen Prince: The esteemed film scholar and author returns with a highly informative audio commentary for Ikiru. Prince has contributed many essays and other commentaries for Criterion releases, including Kurosawa's Red Beard and Sam Peckinpah's Straw Dogs. This feature-length track expertly dissects every scene, exploring the vast number of layers beneath. He's obviously come very prepared, as there are no discernible long pauses or stutters...it's virtual 'Film School 101'. Long-term and casual Kurosawa fans alike will really enjoy this one, as it's one of the more substantial audio commentaries in recent memory. Normally, this track alone would be sufficient enough, but there are plenty more extras here for your viewing enjoyment!
Theatrical Trailer: It's always interesting to see how a movie is pitched to the general public, especially one this age. Like most other Kurosawa trailers, it runs nearly four minutes in length, and actually gives a surprising amount of the plot away. If you haven't seen Ikiru yet, wait until after seeing it to check out this trailer.
A Message From Akira Kurosawa: Also titled For Beautiful Movies, this documentary runs for 80 minutes, and provides a general overview of Kurosawa's approach to film-making. Similar to the Yasujiro Ozu documentary on Criterion's Tokyo Story 2-disc set, this informative look inside the mind of Kurosawa couldn't be more appropriately paired with any other of his films. It shows his skilled hands in nearly every aspect of the cinematic process: drawing storyboards, designing costumes, and even participating in the final editing process. This documentary is divided neatly into ten chapters, each covering a specific aspect of the stages of a motion picture. Scenes from many classic Kurosawa films are shown, including Rhapsody In August, Rashomon, Scandal, and Maddadayo (his final directorial effort). Strangely, Ikiru itself is absent here, but the focus of this documentary lies in the life of Kurosawa himself. For Beautiful Movies, which was originally produced in 2000, also features closing words from his daughter Kazuko Kurosawa, who also provides a portion of the narration. This was a thoughtful inclusion, and a testament to the passion exhibited by the legendary director.
It Is Wonderful To Create: The second documentary is actually a section from the Toho Masterworks Series of the same name. This 40-minute piece naturally focuses on Ikiru itself, and is an excellent retrospective. While no date is provided for the newer footage, I'd wager that this was originally produced in the early 1990s. The only footage that is noticeably older features Takashi Shimura himself, who passed away in 1982. Other contributors include the art director, script supervisor, several more members of the cast, and Kurosawa himself. This was a great documentary, and it's wonderful that most of the key players in Ikiru were able to recount some of their stories and experiences on and off the set. It Is Wonderful To Create is a very entertaining effort, and it's a shame that it only lasted 40 minutes...I'd have listened for hours. Overall, both of these documentaries compliment each other perfectly, and round out this very polished 2-disc set.
Menu Design & Packaging:
Menu backgrounds consist of monochromatic scenes from the film, and navigation is simple and easy to follow. All of the menus feature background audio from the movie itself, providing an appropriately haunting atmosphere. The packaging is also well-done: the cover image is perhaps the most recognizable and symbolic image from Ikiru, and all of the art matches the menu designs quite well. The insert booklet contains an original essay along with credits and production notes. Overall, this is a great presentation by Criterion: no "floating head" cover photo, no lame one-sheet chapter insert, no forced advertisements or trailers for "other great DVD releases"…just a tastefully-done presentation of a classic film.
Should anything else have been included?
For the extras themselves, Criterion couldn't have done a better job! However, I have to address one issue: the 'brand-new' subtitle presentation. For those who haven't been keeping track, most recent Criterion releases feature all-new subtitles for many classic foreign films. While Ikiru wasn't the first Kurosawa film to be given a new translation, there are many fans who may be apprehensive of these "new and improved" versions. I don't speak fluent Japanese myself, so I can't say which version is more accurate. However, many people have only ever seen one translation of this film, so any changes are bound to produce some amount of friction with hardcore fans. Even the slightest alteration of dialogue can inadvertently change the meaning of a scene, which can be a major negative to purists. On the excellent Throne of Blood DVD, viewers were given the choice of two different subtitle options, and I think that should be provided with all future Criterion offerings. If both the original subtitles (as seen in the laserdisc releases, for example) and the new ones were included, everyone could be happy. While I didn't necessarily mind these new subtitles, a few faithful DVD Talkers have expressed their concerns over this matter. Criterion should take this into consideration for future releases, especially since their versions are usually considered "definitive".
Ikiru is a fine example of classic cinema, a timeless story of a man with absolutely nothing left to lose. It's films like this that really change lives…it'll make you think twice about how you live yours, or how you could be living it. Takashi Shimura absolutely shines in a role he was born to play, and would only solidify his legendary status in later films like Seven Samurai and Throne Of Blood. Although he was rarely considered a "leading man", you'd never know by watching him work in Ikiru. Criterion really delivered the goods with this excellent 2-disc release, especially with the pair of documentaries and the commentary with Stephen Prince. While the lone subtitle track may be considered somewhat of a loss, don't let that stop you from appreciating everything that Ikiru has to offer. So far, this release has set the bar high for DVD in 2004, and deserves a spot on the shelf of any serious film lover. With the upcoming releases of several other Kurosawa classics from Criterion (including a rumored re-release of Seven Samurai), let's hope they keep the ball rolling with efforts like this one! Ikiru can easily be considered a part of the DVD Talk Collector's Series…it has everything that makes this medium so great, and then some.
Other Links of Interest
Akira Kurosawa Filmography at IMDb
Takashi Shimura Filmography at IMDb
Rashomon DVD review by Matt Langdon
Throne Of Blood DVD review by Jason Janis
Red Beard DVD review by Phillip Duncan
Tokyo Story DVD review by Matthew Millheiser
The Criterion Collection Website
Randy Miller III is an art instructor based in Harrisburg, PA. He also does freelance graphic design projects and works in an art gallery. When he's not doing that, he enjoys slacking off, general debauchery, and writing things in third person.