I’ve been following and very much enjoying the Akira Kurosawa season and Film4, for which I am very grateful for them making possible for us to see such incredible films. Although heavy on the Samurai the season ended on an earlier film that is both uplifting and depressing. Ikiru/Living (1952) we have another lead Takashi Shimura
instead of Kurosawa’s favourite lead actor Toshirô Mifune who was at the front or featured in the action heavy films.
Here however we see Shimura who I haven’t seen in a lead role since Seven Samurai (1954), the wise leader who brings together fellow warriors to fend off a town from bandits. Here in a softer more emotional role as an elderly man who has wasted his life in a civil servant for the last thirty years. Discovers he has stomach cancer, a death sentence for him, although not explicitly told he knows what the doctor was really saying to. A shock to anyone told they have inoperable cancer, no hope or chance of living much more than a year or so.
As we have seen numerous times in film and television, it’s a wake-up call to Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) who after spending thirty years signing and stamping forms, realises how little time he might have. What could have been 2 hours of exciting new experiences, such as The Bucket List (2007), is a two-part film from two perspectives. First the straight forward direction as he Wantanabe comes to terms with his fate, drowning his sorrows before hitting the town with new-found friend a novelist (Yûnosuke Itô) who shows him what he believes to be living. As much as he enjoy it, the pace is too much for him to have a repeat of it.
His second attempt with colleague Toyo Odagiri (Miki Odagiri) proves more successful, having been a widower for the best part of thirty years its seen by his son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) who disapproves of the relationship, whilst the facts are still hidden from him. Whilst not a full-filing time with the girl Kanji realises what he must do to be happy, making a difference.
Before we can even see him begin to make that difference, the narrator snatches him from us, cutting the film potentially short of its running time. Spending the remainder of the film in one room, at his wake, as colleagues and family discuss his last remaining months. What he had done, had he been recognised for it properly. Most importantly how they would lead their own lives thereafter.
Life even in 1950’s Japan had its share of red-tape, treating citizens like idiots when it came to getting things done with the council/local government, that could have prevented Kanji’s legacy and gift to the local community. Teaching us to seize the day and do something that matters, not accepting our situation and carry on.
A powerful film, that was well worth the wait, both depressing and uplifting for the spirit, with an actor who would later save a helpless and cowardly town in Seven Samurai. The themes are contemporary, ensuring that it still resonates today. Visually it’s not like the previous films, full of longing closes ups and grimy sets of a town that is indeed of much love, something that it later receives. It’s quite a feat for a film to remain in one room for over an hour discussing the same subject without losing its way or hold on an audience. Filling in the remainder of Kanji’s life, something I was disappointed in not having at the half way point. A brave move by Kurosawa, another reason why he is such an admired director, for taking chances as such as this with an audience, can pay off if we are invested in the characters enough to stay after they have died.