Few films approach the complexities of the meaning of life -- as weighty a subject as there ever is -- with such grace and subtle sophistication as Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru. Though he supposedly didn't consider himself an existentialist, Kurosawa spent much of his work exploring how people define how a life is lived.
For that is the meaning of the title, after all: Ikiru means "to live." And in this 1952 film, released on DVD this year by The Criterion Collection, Kurosawa shows that it is not enough to think, love or feel. To live, he suggests, a human being must do. Our actions define us.
This special two-disc package is loaded with helpful extras, including commentary by biographer Peter Prince, and two documentaries: the 81-minute A Message From Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies and a 41-minute piece about the making of Ikiru.
Early in the film, the protagonist bureaucrat Watanabe (Takashi Shimura, who a year later would lead The Seven Samurai) goes through an awkward transformation after realizing he has terminal cancer. He experiences the initial stirrings of first regret, then defiance, and then falls in with a bohemian writer who shows him the town. At first blush, we should be happy for Watanabe; behold the prude who gets his groove on.
But to Kurosawa, even action alone is not enough. Living decadently, which was becoming vogue in the increasingly Westernized, post-World War II Japan, is only one part of living. Accomplishment helps define us as well. So Watanabe, with the clock ticking and without telling anyone his condition, sets about pushing through a public-works park project in a neighborhood landfill against all the red-tape odds.
Is that enough? For Kurosawa, not by a long stretch; using a narrative technique that marked other films (The Drunken Angel, High and Low), he played with the structure and gambled by having Watanabe die midway through the film, the park project accomplished after several unseen battles. The rest of the story is told mostly in flashback at his wake, as his co-workers and family members try to understand the normally docile mummy who became a maverick. And they initially are all off the mark, first unwilling to acknowledge that one bureaucrat could (or should) buck the system. This extended scene, which could try some of the most patient movie-watchers' patience, undergoes a series of shifts, as the mourners go through denial, then spite, then acknowledgement of his accomplishments, then (drunkenly) honor Watanabe and ultimately promise to follow his example.
Which, in the sober light of day, never really happens, does it? Only one co-worker, the one who kept pushing to recognize what Watanabe has done, seems to still recognize his boss' value. And even he runs the risk of suffering the same fate as he faces the massive pile of paperwork that almost did in Watanabe.
So much of Ikiru's charm comes from Kurosawa's technique, which is a godsend; let's face it, the word "existential" can send the hardiest of us reaching for the remote control. But Kurosawa brings all of his skills to this film, which makes sense when you consider that he had his regular group of collaborators firmly in place for the film: co-writer Shinobu Hashimoto, cinematographer Asakazu Nakai, production designer So Matsuyama, music composer Fumio Hayasaka and others would work on many of Kurosawa's other major works from then on. And but for a few moments, the movie feels all of a piece.
There are moments of pure cinematic brilliance, not the least of which is the office in which Watanabe, the chief of public affairs, works with his snickering staff. Kurosawa had Matsuyama create huge stacks of paper that he used to separate workers to frame little moments of isolation. If you've ever worked in a lifeless office environment, you can relate.
In a subsequent montage scene, Kurosawa spins the neighborhood women through the bureaucratic prism (or is that prison?), as one drone after another passes the buck to the next department -- landing right back where they started, at public affairs.
Of all the collaborations, my personal favorite, has to be Shimura, who would do an almost complete about-face two years later on Kurosawa's most famous work, 1954's The Seven Samurai. In many ways, Shimura's samurai leader Kambei Shimada is everything Watanabe is not: a fearless, wise leader. If anything, Shimada's suffering comes from having lived a life too full. So to see Ikiru after The Seven Samurai is quite an experience. For Shimura's Watanabe bears a face that carries the weight of the world. One moment it appears zombified, the next awestruck by his fate, the next humble and resolute as he wages his battle for the neighborhood park against arrogant superiors. Even though he has been long gone for most of the movie, we miss Watanabe, because Shimura has convinced us of his worth, and his legacy. We believe he has, ultimately, led a life of value. He even makes us want to live a little better. And that's a neat trick, indeed.