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.
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 Watanabe's 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 do.
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,