Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Some directors can turn out profound films from the simplest of subjects. Akira Kurosawa's long
tale of a man dying of stomach cancer has nothing in common
with American television 'disease of the week' movies, but is instead a witty, insightful story
that moves quickly and keeps the attention with its unusual points of view and decidedly unsentimental
approach. When it decides to go for an emotional ending, it's devastating.
Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is an anonymous public servant described by the
objective narrator as a man avoiding life, a man who has never lived. Stomach cancer sends him into a
swirl of confusion and remorse, until he makes a decision to struggle to get one small but significant
project through the impassable mire of the Tokyo civil bureaucracy.
So formidable as the leader of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, Takashi Shimura is here a hobbled, terrified
man with little pride and few resources, whose philosophy in 30 years of public service has been
to do as little as possible, stay invisible and retain one's job. He fits in with the general run of men
in his office, petty types concerned about their status and the rare opportunities for advancement. As
is typical for Kurosawa, Watanabe becomes an outcast alienated from the rest of society, in this case
by a terminal disease. The crisis of a life without meaning turns Watanabe into a small but
significant hero: instead of surrendering meekly, he'll go down fighting in the only way he knows,
forcing a needed issue through the uncaring maze of city hall red tape.
Kurosawa's story is once again told in an unusual way. The callous, almost Dragnet-like narrator pegs
Watanabe's illness first, and his insignificance second. Compositional extremes express the
claustrophobic limbo of the city records division where Watanabe works - everyone is divided and
isolated by dark piles of paperwork that must take years to pass through the system. Wide angle lenses
and deep focus (pointed out by commentator Stephen Prince as a technique Kurosawa would soon drop) force
terror into our faces. Watanabe exits the narrative at the halfway point, and his story is taken
up in Kane-like (or
Rashomon-like?) testimony, much of which
counters the cliché that the man's dying efforts will be honored or given their appropriate
respect. This is followed by a spiritual conclusion that condenses in image and song the chilling but
human meaning of the concept 'to live.'
Kurosawa again uses techniques more skillfully than many other great filmmakers, fashioning an
'artistic statement' that entertains and absorbs us. Life seems to explode into relief around
Watanabe as he tries to drown his fear in teeming crowds and tawdry nightclubs. The chaos of life
reminds us a bit of Rudolph Maté's 1949 D.O.A, in which similar scenes of panic
isolate a dying hero in the heart of a very living city.
As Mr. Prince points
out, Kurosawa changes a detail in his lighting scheme at a key moment. In the first part of his ordeal,
Watanabe's eyes are dull and dark, and often averted from our view. When a moment of inspiration reveals
the path he will take, the cameraman adds eyelights, little reflections that bring Watanabe's face to
life. Our bureaucratic hero spends the rest of the time he has left with his eyes wide open, bravely
facing oblivion with meaningful action.
Interestingly, this Japanese film doesn't have the same existential foundation of typical Western
stories of this kind, where 'the struggle is the thing' and failure is no defeat if one is 'putting
up the good fight'. There's no compromise for Watanabe - only positive results will suffice, and
from the moment he figures out what he needs to do, he's on a race he must win. Effort alone won't
Kurosawa's film seems to descend to a powerful, simple image that makes Ikiru's indelible mark
on film history, one of those images that gathers all the meaning of a film into one clear picture. When
the lights come up, many of us are changed people.
Criterion's DVD of Ikiru continues their superlative chain of Kurosawa classics. The restored
image is given their digital buffing but is a little on the dark side ... just a little. It's not as
perfect-looking as some their other Toho releases, probably because the available element had some
built-in flaws - a slight density pulsing, fine scratches, and lightly fluttering contrast. Some of
the many wipes still jump at the optical cut points. Perhaps the spotless Rashomon
was made from an original negative lacking here. The sound is free of most hiss and distortion.
Stephen Prince's expert commentary track nails all the historical, career and personal stories inside
Ikiru, with accurate descriptions of the simple but effective visual schemes used by Kurosawa
to make wicked commentary on the story before us.
The second disc contains two more hours of key Kurosawa research material - a forty minute Japanese
TV docu on Ikiru, and a 90 minute docu on the director's films and methods. Both are excellent
shows with plenty of behind the scenes stills and footage, and interviews with Kurosawa and his
actors. Mr. Shimura and two of the actresses from Ikiru, interviewed 40 years later, have a lot
to say about their roles and their director. The shows are irreplaceable documents.
Critics that squint at the pricing should realize that unlike a studio mining owned vault assets,
Criterion must license the film and the Japanese television shows from foreign companies,
a time-consuming process of negotiations. The restoration, new subtitling and presentation that the
Criterion banner guarantees are expensive as well. In many cases their discs can
be truly said to be definitive, the last word in presentation and academic scholarship. DVD producers
often labor in a vacuum of anonymity; this excellent set was put together by Kim Hendrickson.
Each new Kurosawa film from Criterion's series is a gem to behold. Savant
eagerly awaits the paranoid thriller The Bad Sleep Well and the prophetic Atomic-Age parable
I Live in Fear. No doubt they will eventually revisit the early disc of High and Low,
to bring it up to standard as well. Once again, Bravo Criterion.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Supplements: trailer, commentary by author Stephen Prince, 90-min docu A Message from Akira
Kurosawa (2000), 41-minute documentary on Ikiru from the series,
Akira Kurosawa: To Create is Beautiful
Packaging: 2-disc oversized Keep case
Reviewed: January 10, 2003
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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