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Ikiru: Criterion Collection

The Criterion Collection // Unrated // November 24, 2015
List Price: $39.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Randy Miller III | posted November 20, 2015 | E-mail the Author

What would you do if you had six months left to live? Similar questions have been explored in films during the last few decades, but none provide a level of affirmation quite like Ikiru (1951), a highlight of director Akira Kurosawa's hugely influential career. In many ways, it's been overshadowed by two other Kurosawa films that were released shortly before and after: Rashomon (1950) and Seven Samurai (1954), arguably his most recognized efforts. However, Ikiru tells an entirely different kind of story: it has more in common with Kurosawa's later masterpiece, Red Beard (1965), shifting its focus toward a man out of his element who gradually finds happiness in an unlikely place.

Ikiru's opening sequence flatly informs us that the main character, Kanji Watanabe (played by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura), has just been diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer. Faced with the reality of a slow and painful death, Watanabe can't help but feel insecure about his own life and everything that's wrong with it: his relationship with adult son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) is shaky at best, his friends are few and far between, and his wife has already passed away. To make matters worse, Watanabe has toiled behind a desk for 30 years, never getting much out of his job other than a steady paycheck. 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 Ikiru unfold and not be moved by the sheer volume of emotions shown by an ordinary man whose days are almost literally numbered.

Divided into two parts, Ikiru isn't afraid to move slowly...but like Kurosawa's excellent High and Low, the climax seems to appear about halfway through. Its first section focuses on the futility of clinging to life: Watanabe tries everything to find contentment and assurance, but always reverts back to his sorrowful state. His only real happiness comes through time spent with a younger female co-worker (played with infectious joy by Miki Odagiri, in her first film appearance); through his interactions with this young lady, Watanabe begins work on a final project that will give him a long-overdue sense of purpose. We later witness this second chance at life as Ikiru fully explores the results of Watanabe's new-found determination. Told in sequential flashbacks, these scenes allow the viewer to witness almost every side of his last stab at existence. Like life itself, it's a blessing and a curse to be along for the ride.

Ikiru is a rare gem: it's emotional, but not preachy or overly sentimental; uplifting, but not unrealistic. I'll admit it hits me a little harder now than when I first saw it more than decade ago, probably because I'm 10 years deep into an office job. But regardless of your personal situation, Ikiru speaks universal truths about the human condition, mortality, and simply living outside of yourself as a way to improve life while it lasts. Criterion's long-awaited Blu-ray aims to overtake their own 2004 DVD, which was itself an impressive two-disc edition loaded with entertaining and informative extras. Aside from a shiny new A/V presentation and "improved" subtitles, this is basically the same package...but the film's obviously the real draw, so I'd imagine the Kurosawa faithful already have their wallets out.

Quality Control Department

Video & Audio Quality

Sourced from a recent 4K restoration, Criterion's new 1080p, 1.37:1 transfer of Ikiru represents a strong leap in quality over their own 2004 DVD; it's still not as crisp and consistent as other films from the era, but almost every perceived deficiency---for lack of a better word---can likely be traced back to the missing original negative. Mild fluctuations and hints of dirt and debris can easily be spotted along the way, and a handful of scene transitions are shaky at best...but as far as I'm concerned, that's how Ikiru has always looked and it's not distracting in the least. Either way, there are obvious improvements in overall image quality, contrast levels, shadow detail, and texture that easily make this the film's best home video presentation to date. It also has a much more film-like appearance this time around, as opposed to the slightly processed "video" look of DVD. That, combined with Criterion's sterling track record, should give fans confidence that this likely represents the closest we'll get to visual perfection for now.

DISCLAIMER: The screen captures featured in this review are resized and do not represent the Blu-ray's 1080p source image.

Not to be outdone, the Japanese PCM 1.0 audio mix also appears to be in better condition than its DVD counterpart. Dialogue is relatively crisp, while the music cues by Fumio Hayasaka are balanced nicely with an expected amount of clipping during louder moments. Overall, there's a decent amount of improvement overall, though lossless audio is still bound to be overshadowed by the phrase "4K" in most circles. Optional English subtitles are included...and in contrast to Criterion's DVD, this is advertised as a new English translation. I'm sure anyone more familiar with Japanese might be able to confirm or deny the improved accuracy; I'll just have to take their word for it.

Menu Design, Presentation & Packaging

As usual, Criterion's interface is smooth and easy to navigate. This one-disc release is packaged in Criterion's standard "stocky" keepcase with attractive double-sided artwork. The fold-out Insert includes technical details, a new essay by critic and travel writer Pico Iyer and an excerpt from critic Donald Richie's 1965 book, The Films of Akira Kurosawa.

Bonus Features

Everything from Criterion's own 2004 DVD; nothing more, nothing less. These recycled extras include an excellent Audio Commentary with Stephen Prince, two lengthy Documentaries ("A Message From Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies" and "It Is Wonderful To Create", 120 minutes total), and the film's Theatrical Trailer. It's disappointing that Criterion couldn't produce or dig up any new supplements during the last 11 years, but this is nonetheless an informative and well-rounded batch of extras. For a more detailed description of each one, click the review link above.

Final Thoughts

Ikiru is Akira Kurosawa's timeless film about a dying man who discovers redemption and happiness by leaving his comfort zone of nostalgia and wasted opportunities. Takashi Shimura's magnetic turn as Kanji Watanabe might just be his most enduring performance (even taking Seven Samurai into account), and it's more than enough to carry Ikiru's understated ambitions to the finish line. It's not regularly listed among Kurosawa's most popular efforts, but this is a near-perfect production in every regard and has held up extremely well during the last 63 years. Criterion's Blu-ray package arrives more than a decade after their excellent 2004 DVD, but the only differences here are a recent 4K restoration, lossless audio, and a newly-translated subtitle track. For fans of the film, however, that's more than enough to make Ikiru one of this year's most welcome and impressive Blu-ray releases. Highly Recommended.

Randy Miller III is an affable office monkey by day and film reviewer by night (and day, if he's bored enough). He also does freelance design work and runs a website or two. In his limited free time, Randy also enjoys slacking off, juggling HD DVDs, and writing in third person.
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