on August 9, 2005
There are many wonderful reviews on this site about why the film "Ikiru" is so great. And many are beautifully written. I have seen many films in my life, yet "Ikiru" stands head and shoulders above any I have ever seen. For me, the film is not only the greatest Japanese film ever, but the greatest film of all-time. One of the reviewers [BARRY C. CHOW] gave a very good and poignant review of this film. And I hope he is wrong that the film will not appeal "to those raised on a western diet of car crashes, yammering idiots and pixie dust." However, maybe in time, when these viewers have grown older, wiser, and have experienced life, then these viewers will come to appreciate the pure genius of this Kurosawa classic.
I know that writing that this is the greatest film of all-time is a bold statement. So let me clarify it a bit more: It is my favorite film of all-time. I have seen countless films, but none have had the impact that this film has had on me. Ikiru (To Live) is not a film about dying: but how we live our lives. And in this short life of ours how we live our life matters. Are we kind to our neighbors? Do we care for our children? And just as important: Do we spend enough quality time with them? This is a quiet and simple film. The main protagonist Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) has gone through his life as another cog in the bureaucratic office where he works.
Maybe at one time in his life he had dreams of better things; yet with time he grows accustomed to his job; and is no longer alive with the passion of what makes life enjoyable. Yes, one can belong to a bureaucratic machine; but one can also make a difference, as we the viewer are about to find out. Moreover, we can also live a life outside of our jobs. We can all make a difference no matter what our life's work entails. However, events in Watanabe's life are about to take a different turn. A turn for the worse, and yet, also a redeeming turn for the better. When Watanabe is diagnosed with an incurable illness, he sets about to give some meaning to a life wasted as a lifetime bureaucrat. For our humble protagonist realizes that his life must have a meaning. Watanabe realizes that through all the wasted years since his wifes death he has not accomplished anything worthwhile. Alienated from his son, he sets about to correct in what little time he has remaining to make some sort of contribution to society.
And this contribution comes in the way of a childrens park. Akira Kurosawa does not insult his viewers with a grand design of a holy crusader about to change the world. No, for Mr. Watanabe, the simple desire to build a childrens park is all that he seeks. Simple and yet all so poignant. We the viewer follow Mr. Watanabe as he meets the very bureaucratic headaches that he himself was once a part of, but no longer. We have sympathy for Mr. Watanabe as goes about trying to cut through all the red tape in order to see the park built before he dies. No longer the obstructionist bureaucrat, he now comes face to face with the very obstacles others have faced when he was once the obstructionist.
This is Watanabe's attempt to make amends for his own past. This is not only Kurosawa's greatest film, but the greatest film ever. There are no shoot-outs, explosions or car chases. This film is a simple reminder to those of us who are willing to take the time to see what Kurosawa is attempting to show us: That life is short. And that what we do with our lives matters. How many of us, like the protagonist Kanji Watanabe are alive, but have not lived life? Do we put off visting our loved ones? Are we just going through the motions of life? Or are we living a life of quality?
And yes, our dear protagonist Mr. Watanabe does succeed in the end at making a contribution, no matter how small. And Takashi Shimura's character does succeed in giving some meaning to his short life and existence--his way of contributing, no matter how small, to those in his community. I first watched this film in 1977, and I never tire of viewing it again and again. There is not a scene in the film that I cannot recall. This is a heartfelt film, and Takashi Shimura [His greatest role] plays his part in the film with such outstanding humility, that we the viewer come to empathize with him. I have never forgotten the part where he sings, both in the drinking establishment, and at the end of the film; swinging in the now finished children's playground: So haunting, and yet so beautiful. This film puts what's really important in life into perspective. Life is too short, make the best of it. And more importantly, live your life as if each day were the last. There are not enough stars to give this great classic. [Stars: 5+++++]
on September 22, 2003
Since others have written lengthy, intelligent reviews (And I'm glad they did) I will use my space to be simple. The film, at its most basic level, is about redemption, living (Ikiru is "To Live" in english) and dying, and what matters most to really make a difference in your life, and the lives of others. The film is quiet yet utterly powerful, a basic study of a man trying to find meaning in his last days. But it's so much more than that, and I can only describe the film and its purpose as noble, genuine, warm, moving, and beautiful. It is not a sappy, happy movie, but it's so quietly affecting that I'm a grown man who is still reduced to tears seeing the pivotal "swing" scene that is on the movie's cover. What is happening in that scene, what it means, what it represents, and what is being said during the shot, is, to me, just about the most hauntingly moving scene I've ever witnessed. And I will remember it forever, as well as all of Ikiru, as a poignant, sad yet triumphant example of the human spirit to really persevere and make a wonderful difference.
on June 19, 2003
This is a humble film with the soul of an angel. It isn't about a life so much as it is about the act of living. This film, in its quiet way, asks us to ponder what makes life meaningful. And it argues that our pursuit of life's quantity is misplaced, because it leads to neglect of life's quality.
It tells the story of a dying man's last days. Kanji Watanabe is a lifelong cog in a vast bureaucratic machine who has wasted his entire life shuffling papers. He is played by Takashi Shimura in one of the finest understated performances ever committed to film. Shot in black and white, it is melancholic, bleak and subdued. Likely, Kurosawa chose to film in black and white to reflect the starkness of the protagonist's last days; the way the world looks through dying eyes; and it works.
It is the mark of Kurosawa's genius how the story and the character sneak up on us. At first, Mr. Watanabe seems an uninspiring study, hardly worthy of our sympathy. A small meek fragile man, he almost stoops under the weight of his own life. He learns of his illness in a well-known opening scene that combines pathos with cruel irony, and before we know it, we start to care about this little man who life treads so callously underfoot. What at first looks like lack of courage reveals itself to be lack of motivation. What we take to be a spineless career of dull conformity turns out to be a sacrifice made for the sake of an unappreciative son. This film has layers and subtlety and visual poetry presented with understatement, finesse and restraint: a wonderful combination that shows the deepest respect for the intelligence of the audience.
The moral turning point in the story is reached when Mr Watanabe determines to accomplish one worthwhile achievement before his life ends. We don't realize how involved we have become in this little man's life until we find ourselves mentally urging him onward to overcome every bureaucratic obstacle he encounters. Not so long ago, with the prospect of a long life still stretched out before him, he was one of the very bureaucrats whose job it was to obstruct and confound just such aspirations. Now, with barely months to live, he makes it his duty to champion them. This turn of events is one of the most touching acts of redemption in all of cinema. By making amends for an unworthy past, an ordinary everyman finds life's meaning in his very last act of living.
I have watched hundreds of films since Ikiru, but there are scenes from this film that have burned themselves into my heart and are as clear today as the moment I first saw them. This occurs not because the director achieved an especially vivid special effect, but because of how deeply we come to care for our little hero. The famous scene at the end is one of the most dignified and gracious artistic statements ever filmed, yet it is a scene of wounding simplicity: a perfect epitaph to a cinematic elegy.
Kurosawa was one of the greatest of all filmmakers and this was his best and most personal film. It's a crime that his work is known only among the literati of the film world, and not to a wider audience. I cannot promise you that you will like this film, because it is paced with a measured and quiet deliberation that is utterly foreign to those raised on a western diet of car crashes, yammering idiots and pixie dust. You need patience, introspection and empathy to appreciate this gentle masterpiece, but if you are the kind of person who is moved by pity, tenderness, humility and grace, then I envy you your first viewing of this ode to the human spirit.
on June 27, 2002
"Ikiru," to my mind, may be the greatest film in the canon of one of the cinema's greatest directors. It is one of the most spiritually engaging films I have ever seen, and one that reveals new insights each time I watch it.
The Japanese word ikiru is a verb meaning "to live," and provides a very concise summary of what this film is about. Kurosawa's subject is nothing less than the meaning of life itself, and how we obscure that meaning through the thoughtlessness of our daily actions, our isolation from other human beings, and the misperceptions affecting the limited relations we do have with others. Through his depiction of a crisis in the life of his protagonist, Kurosawa challenges us to examine our own assumptions about life and happiness.
In "Ikiru," we meet Kanji Watanabe, a public official with no passion for his work duties. A narrator informs us that Watanabe has been more dead than alive for some time now, and simply goes through the motions at his job. His desk contains an enormous stack of petitions and requests from the public, along with various forms and memos. Watanabe doesn't seem interested in reducing the size of this mountain of paperwork. When he opens his desk drawer, we see a document entitled "A Plan to Raise Office Efficiency." He tears off the first page of the plan and uses it to clean his glasses, finally throwing the crumpled paper into his trashcan. As we watch Watanabe's barely conscious attempts to do his job, the narrator asks us if this type of detachment is morally acceptable.
As the film unfolds, we learn that Watanabe's zombie-like activities at the office are only part of his problems. He lives with his son and his son's wife, and seems to have a strained relationship with both of them. After Watanabe discovers that he has cancer, the awareness of his pending mortality causes him to sense the meaninglessness of his life for the first time.
Determined to escape from his depression, Watanabe makes various attempts "to live." Overtures toward his son and daughter-in-law fall flat. He makes the acquaintance of a young writer, and his new companion tries to cheer him up by taking him out to experience a few cheap thrills. They go to bars, nightclubs, and strip shows, but Watanabe is unable to overcome the feelings of utter hopelessness inside him. As the film progresses, we gradually learn the details of Watanabe's final quest for meaning.
Ikiru is a fascinating and unique film on many levels. The nonlinear use of time and the circular structure used to catch all of Watanabe's coworkers shirking their responsibilities are used to great advantage. For instance, Kurosawa cuts from Watanabe's desk to the desks of all of his coworkers and then back again to show that he is part of a culture of denial and apathy that distinguishes his office as a whole. The circular structure also neatly and humorously summarizes the "vicious circle" of bureaucracy, and shows the surprising amount of time wasted in this fashion. What at first seems to be a relatively short time interval spent between one employee's refusal to accept the complaint and the next turns out to be much longer - so long that Watanabe has apparently left his desk long ago and hasn't been back. This sequence sets up the next scene, in which we will learn of Watanabe's cancer and way it begins causing him to look more critically at the environment of apathy we have just witnessed.
This movie also expertly examines some of the "meanings of life" common in contemporary culture. To the young writer Watanabe meets in the bar, the meaning of life is literally found in wine, women and song. He fails to understand that Watanabe needs something deeper than pleasures of the flesh. What then is Watanabe's problem? One interpretation of the film maintains that Watanabe must come to realize that he alone is responsible for the choices he makes in his life. We may call this the existentialist interpretation of the film. According to some existentialists, the film tells us that `life' is meaningless when everything is said and done; at the same time one man's life can acquire meaning when he undertakes to perform some task that to him is meaningful."
This interpretation of "Ikiru" conjures memories of Albert Camus' classic existentialist riff on humanity in The Myth of Sisyphus. That is, all of us must push our boulders up the hill of life repeatedly, only to have them roll back down again, but we can find meaning in even the most repetitious and purposeless circumstances if we try.
Ultimately, however, I think the existentialist reading fails to account for the full meaning of Watanabe's spiritual crisis and eventual rebirth. It is true that Watanabe needs to look more deeply into his life and disregard the ways others perceive his actions. But I don't think Kurosawa's thesis is that life is inherently meaningless until we resolve to perform tasks that are meaningful to us. The existentialist interpretation begs the question of why Watanabe was not able to find meaning in the nihilist ecstasy championed by the young writer, or in the company of a young girl.
Kurosawa's point seems to be that these kinds of actions inherently cannot bring fulfillment to our lives. So it isn't just a matter of being able to choose meanings wherever we see fit. Only certain types of thoughts and actions seem to be capable of rendering true meaning. In this regard, Kurosawa has much in common with the great Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky, a writer initially embraced but finally rejected by many existentialists (especially Camus). Dostoevky best expressed his philosophy of life in his last and greatest book, The Brothers Karamazov. The central theme of Karamazov is that all people are guilty before all others, because all of our ideas and actions affect the lives of others, and the ideas and actions of others affect our lives. This means that we are all responsible for each other. Instead of asking why life seems to be meaningless, we should therefore ask whether our own thoughts and actions lessen or increase the sense of meaning in the world - whether we add or subtract from the sum of human suffering.
Kurosawa adapted Doestevsky's novel The Idiot immediately prior to making Ikiru, and considered Dostoevsky a major influence throughout his career. He also considered Ikiru to be most Dostoevskyan of all his films. In light of these facts, we can begin to see Ikiru as an exploration of the Dostoevskyan concept of shared responsibility, and the liberation from despair it entails when properly understood.
In the world of Ikiru, isolation reigns supreme. Each department in Watanabe's public works office is an island unto itself, and will not assume responsibility for a single project. As we have seen, they refer the complaint about the sump from one desk to another in an endless cycle of buerocratic duty shirking. Watanabe drives home this point after his spiritual awakening, when he tells his coworkers that all of the departments must work together in order to fulfill their responsibility toward the public. He awakens to the realization that his actions can make a difference, because each human life intersects with every other.
At a recent special screening of "Ikiru," Chicago Tribune film critic Michael Wilmington discussed the "shadow of death" that hangs over the film. Legendary writer Studs Turkel, who was also present at the screening, gave the appropriate reply: "It's about death you say? But, of course, it's about life."
In the final analysis, I think Studs is right. After all, the name "Ikiru" does mean "to live," and that can't be an accident. The film is a beautiful and insightful reminder that none of us are truly alone if we recognize our responsibility to others who share the world with us. At a time when world events make us feel scared, threatened and isolated, we may need this message more than ever before.
on December 9, 2004
I'm not going to review "Ikiru" per se, but discuss the "import" DVD version (vs. the Criterion version).
The "import" DVD version of "Ikiru" is an official DVD release of the film by the Hong Kong company Mei Ah. It is not a bootleg (though bootleg versions may also exist).
THE SUBTITLES ON THE MEI AH VERSION ARE SO BAD THAT THE MOVIE IS NEARLY UNWATCHABLE. The English subtitles are a translation of the Chinese subtitles/translation of the original Japanese dialogue. This is evident because the Japanese characters bizarrely have Chinese names. As a result, the English grammar is atrociously poor even by typical Hong Kong standards (and this is coming from someone who watches a LOT of subtitled Hong Kong movies). Think about that for a second:
Japanese ---> Chinese ---> Garbled English ---> scratching your head trying to figure out what characters are talking about
Plus, the Mei Ah DVD is a "flipper", i.e. a double-sided disc that you need to turn over in the middle of the movie.
So my recommendation is to stick with the Criterion version. It is worth the price. If you think you can save money by buying the import version, do this instead:
1) with a magic marker write "IKIRU" on the front of a ten dollar bill
2) burn it
That will cost the same as the import DVD and will be a much more satisfying viewing experience.
on January 8, 2004
As a big fan of Kurosawa and the Criterion Collection, I couldn't wait to recieve this DVD in the mail.
Human life can be lost before a person dies, Kurosawa's film shows, and it is difficult for anyone to remain truly alive with all of life's challenges and setbacks. Like a thin thread, life's inspiration is easy to lose. But what happens when a man loses that thread for decades and discovers it again only months before dying?
The answer to this question is both heart-warming and heart-breaking. But ultimately this film will burn brightly in the viewer's mind.
Two years after becoming world famous for Rashomon, Kurosawa released this thematic sequal - a meditation on truth and meaning in the modern world. While Rashomon became a cinematic landmark, I think this film blows rashomon away. It, along with Ozu's Tokyo Story, are the most moving films I've ever seen.
What makes Kurosawa so great here? It is the centrality of the movie's meaning. We all die and we all struggle to find truth. Watanabe, a placid and unquestioning bureaucrat, glimpses the truth about his life when he finds that he has only months to live. He immediately sets out to live his life to the fullest - eventually granting the dearest wish of the citizens that the other bureaucrats would just rather ignore.
But like the man who emerges into the sunlight from the cave in Plato's allegory - none of the other cave dwellers understand his actions.In fact, it's worse, the grandstanding officials claim credit Watanabe's inspired actions, despite having stood in his way.
But ultimately the truth saves Watanabe before he dies. This is masterful filmaking - more on par with Kurosawa's heroes Dostoyevsky and Shakespeare than his cinematic peers. It is a must purchase for his fans and, I think, a story that will move the viewer towards greater compassion and consciousness of life passing by.
Perhaps it's no wonder Criterion chose this fim to include two feature documentaries on Kurosawa on a second disc. And the commentary track is done by the always entertaining Stephen Prince. You can't go wrong here.
on July 2, 2005
With only a year to live, Kanji Watanabe examines his life to discover that it has been a waste of time. His son, his presumed reason for working the same boring job for the last thirty years, has married and, although still living with the father, has drawn away from him, such that conversation is minimal and awkward, to the extent that Kanji is unable to tell him about his terminal cancer. For the most part, Kanji's work as the chief at city hall fills his life, but does nothing to fulfill it-- the work itself is meaninglessly mired in bureaucracy such that nothing ever really gets done, and certainly nothing of significance. In fact, the work has killed his sense of determination and initiative; it's boring.
So what does Kanji do? He skips work and tries to find meaning for his life, first in alcohol and all the partying that goes with it, and then in the company of a young lady who after one and half years at city hall is resigning her position because it's "boring." She represents perhaps the attitude he should have embraced at an earlier age. But neither the alcohol nor his attraction to this youthful spirit are able to replace the void of despair and regret inside him, residing along with the cancer. He wants desperately "to live," but doesn't know how.
Ikiru should rank as one of the most important films that examines the human life. Director Akira Kurosawa blends so many moments in this film that have remained with me, including the reflective scene in the bar where Kanji and a young writer (a young Kurosawa?) quietly talk to each other in close-up, the writer acknowledging the elder's plight, finding meaning in his despair: "Man finds truth in misfortune."
Takashi Shimura (also in Kurosawa's Rashomon and The Seven Samurai) gives an incredible performance. It's not easy to convey regret through facial expression, but he does it so believably that you become overwhelmed by his pain. The scene toward the end with him on the swing is one of those moments from the movies that you never forget.
Don't rent this film, buy it. Keep it and watch it at least once a year. Maybe it won't make a difference, maybe it won't cause you or me to adopt Kanji's it's-never-too-late, deferential and fanatical perseverance in pushing through something of significance to better humanity, but at least it will keep reminding us to.
on August 21, 2005
I agree with all the other reviews which have discussed "Ikiru" in terms of its message for the individual: live your life with meaning and purpose, take pleasure in helping others, cherish and nurture children. However, there is one other aspect that I'd like to highlight: Kurosawa's thoughts on the individual and society.
As the commentary by Stephen Prince makes clear, one of the main points behind Kurosawa's work was a head-on critique of Japanese society in the immediate post-war era.
Although this period laid the foundation for Japan's economic recovery, Kurosawa is not alone in pointing out that the drive for economic prosperity was accomplished at huge human and spiritual cost. This idea is also one of the prime motivators behind the work of other Japanese artists from humanists like Hayao Miyazaki ("Spirited Away", "Princess Mononoke") to the lunatic right as exemplified by Mishima.
Kurosawa uses Watanabe Kenji as a foil to expose the hypocrisy and selfishness of a society that values materialism and order above humanity and mindfulness. On the one hand, as most of the other reviewers have pointed out, Kurosawa condemns the way the bureaucratic small-mindedness of government stifles any real concern for the well-being of ordinary people. On the other, Watanabe's son and daughter-in-law embody the new age's impatience with its elders and their inability to see beyond their own concerns even when the people around them are clearly in crisis.
A number of people have complained about the length of the second half of the movie, but (as Prince's commentary again makes clear), the flashbacks are important to establish a stronger sense of Watanabe's co-workers as characters both to illustrate their gradual understanding of the meaning of Watanabe's life but also to highlight their inability to really follow his example. Kurosawa's view of society is pretty cynical when you come right down to it. Even though many of his works are celebrations of individual creativity and spirit, he is also forthright about the forces arrayed against it: small-mindedness, fear of making mistakes, greed and the herd mentality. It's no wonder that he has often been accused of being "un-Japanese".
One can also see this thread in Kurosawa's later movies including his period pieces such as "Seven Samurai" and "Kagemusha": in both of these films, the ordinary folks and the high and mighty are also found wanting as groups. While there may be individuals of principle, they will not prevail in the end. But, and Kurosawa makes this point in each of his movies, the efforts of such individuals are the true definition of nobility of spirit, and it is this message which provides the power behind all of his works.
This is a wonderful piece of movie making. It is humanism at its most trenchant and finest. You must see this film, it is one of the best movies of all time.
on August 22, 2005
"Ikiru" is an emotionally potent, ultimately devastating picture that prove that "cinematic art" isn't an oxymoron. As with many Kurosawa films, one runs the risk of overusing superlatives when trying to describe the effect of watching this movie for the first time. The acting, cinematography, pacing, thematic elements, script, dialogue, intelligence, emotional pitch, and humor in the film are all near-perfect; one would have to search fairly hard to find anything to complain about (perhaps the "partying" scene drags on a few minutes too long?). So I'll just say "Watch it" and point out the most obvious strength - the "dual climax" of an ending. Who other than Kurosawa would follow one of the most touching scenes in film history with one of the most bitter - almost nihilistic - codas imaginable? Who would even think of using the inspirational story of one man's struggle to give his empty life meaning to point out the unfailing (and apparently permanent) passive destruction wreaked by a bureaucratic society?
So perhaps the most impressive feature of the film is its ability to inspire even while ackowledging the dearth of humanity in modern society. Never has a film been more idealistic in its presentation of one man's ability to find fulfillment in giving to others, and never has a film been more cynical in its portrayal of one man's ultimate inability to inspire any lasting change in a corrupt culture. While only loosely adapting from Dostoyevsky's source novel, AK perfectly captures the Russian's spirit, that immediately identifiable blend of savage satire and melancholy idealism that ran throughout the author's work (most notably in "The Idiot", not surprisingly another novel AK had previously adapted). Along with epilepsy and alcoholism, Dostoyevsky and Kurosawa shared this sensibility, this powerful belief that the world could be a decent place if people would just make the slightest humanitarian effort, combined with a kind of quiet rage when faced with the reality that humanity as a whole simply will not ever make that effort. Never have these entwined themes been so powerfully expressed on film as they are in "Ikiru."
on February 2, 2008
Ikiru (to live)
This is an extremely passionate film that is small in scope but enormous in heart. It touches on a simple thought that resonates beyond any mundane everyday notions and asks a lofty question--Are you living your life to the fullest? It beautifully explores this question without being haughty or pretentious.
I imagine this is Akiru's most emotionally entrancing and thought provoking film. It's definitely not his most visually impressive or action packed work, but perhaps it's his most personal.
Imagine finding out you have six months to live. That stark realization comes crashing down on this main character, played with subtle precision by Takashi Shimura. As the panic sets in, he is forced to contemplate many important things. He realizes how little he has done with his time here on earth. So he sets off on an important journey to reclaim the life he's wasted.
This story is a strong reminder that everyone should be able to relate to. It stresses the importance of the little things in life, and not to take things for granted. You'll soon realize this message is actually not small in scope at all. Such a moving tale, highly recommended.