Kurosawa Diary, Part 9: Ikiru

After the overlong, stultifying mess of The Idiot, we come to one of the great masterpieces of world cinema. The title, Ikiru, means “to live” (or so I’ve been told), and I’d be hard pressed to think of a better film about the mortality that shapes and shadows our lives. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a better serious contemporary drama, period.

I think I’ve seen Ikiru three or four times theatrically, the last time being at Berkeley’s Fine Arts theater about ten years ago. I was so eager to own it on DVD that I bought a Hong Kong import before the Criterion disc came out. The English subtitles were so badly translated they turned it into an unintentional comedy. I pre-ordered the Criterion as soon as it was announced.

Takashi Shimura gives the performance of his lifetime as an aging governmentikiru bureaucrat who discovers he’s dying of cancer. Emotionally cut off from his family–including the son and daughter-in-law that live with him–he struggles to experience life before he dies. He finds it, not through a bucket list, but through Kurosawa’s primary theme: The universe is cruel and indifferent, so you must be kind and charitable. A deep and moving meditation on mortality and what it means to be human, Ikiru manages to be deeply spiritual without ever mentioning God or religion.

People talk a lot about the professional relationship between Kurosawa and movie star Toshio Mifune. With Ikiru (the only Kurosawa film without Mifune from the period of their collaboration), it’s worth talking about Kurosawa and Shimura. The great character actor (more talented than Mifune in my opinion, although less charismatic) appeared in almost every Kurosawa film until Shimura’s death in 1982. His parts were occasionally small, but often substantial. Ikiru is his one unchallenged starring role, although you could argue that he was the real star of both Drunken Angel and Seven Samurai–even if Mifune stole both of those pictures from him. But by the late 50s, his parts in Kurosawa’s films were reduced to cameos—short appearances of a familiar face. I don’t know why, and I’ve yet to find a scholar who addressed the question.

Scholars also seldom talk about Kurosawa and jazz. Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and Ikiru (easily his three best contemporary-set films of the American occupation) all have scenes in jazz nightclubs. The clubs are meant to be decadent and shallow—breeding grounds of crime and prostitution. Yet the musical numbers are shot with such love and excitement that it’s clear Kurosawa was reveling in the music’s power and promise. Or maybe he was just showing off.

The American occupation ended in 1952, the year Ikiru was released.

Kurosawa followed Ikiru with Seven Samurai, a very different and arguably better masterpiece, and one where Shimura got to play an action hero. Both the auteur and the actor were exceptionally versatile.