- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 8, 2003

"Ikiru" belongs to a supremely creative period in the career of the great Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Made between "Rashomon" and "The Seven Samurai," it was an immediate commercial and critical success in Japan when released in October 1952. "Ikiru" remains the most famous and revered of the Kurosawa movies with a contemporary setting and topical subject.
Its subject still speaks to the hopes and apprehensions of countless people: the redemption of a disillusioned, time-serving municipal bureaucrat who learns that he has just months to live.
After a plunge into self-pity and despair, he summons the dedication for a last-ditch act of civic benevolence, the construction of a playground in a poor and neglected neighborhood.
Now in a 50th-anniversary revival at the American Film Institute Theater, "Ikiru" is sharing play dates with Henri-Georges Clouzot's "Quai des Orfevres" through Feb. 16. "Ikiru" didn't reach American art houses until the winter of 1960 (during a season of Japanese pictures in New York City), when as a college student I was privileged to see it for the first time.
I was suitably overwhelmed, but renewed acquaintance has only enlarged my esteem for "Ikiru," one of the most astonishing and haunting tear-jerkers ever made. As you grow older, the movie's specifically paternal and parental sources of pathos loom a bit larger and penetrate a bit deeper, but "Ikiru" still earns its heartache and consolation the hard way, by insisting on the weak and oblivious aspects of a humble protagonist destined to achieve an almost saintly aura.
The title can be translated as "To Live" or "Living." Ironically, the scenario passes a death sentence on the protagonist with its very first image, an X-ray photo revealing a terminal stomach cancer. The ailing man is played by Takashi Shimura as Kanji Watanabe, a lugubrious widower who supervises the "citizens' section" in an agency answerable to a deputy mayor of Tokyo.
The film's first utterance is an omniscient and coldblooded narrator's observation that this afflicted organ "belongs to" Watanabe. The mocking note, which pre-empts hasty or uncomplicated empathy, accompanies Watanabe's visit to a doctor, who attempts to soothe the patient with a diagnosis of "mild ulcer." This evasion has been anticipated in the waiting room, where another patient describes precisely the euphemisms physicians use when shielding cancer patients from the awful truth.
After Watanabe departs, the doctor speculates aloud, "What would you do if you only had six months to live?" A nurse replies, "Reach for the barbiturates." The movie is so ingeniously contrived that, not long after, Watanabe makes the acquaintance of a stranger in a cafe by offering him a handful of sleeping pills, having overheard a lament that the stranger has none at hand.
This acquaintance ripens in a sardonically delirious sequence that summarizes an all-night bar crawl. A stopover at a strip club displays the prowess of an authentic Tokyo stripper, Lasa Saya; her brief appearance was exaggerated in the first American display ads, desperate enough to hint that "Ikiru" was one long night prowl.
The sequence is part of a systematic and awesome dramatic structure that develops Watanabe's quest through a succession of contrasting runarounds. The first illustrates the character's own inertia as a bureaucrat: A group of mothers from a slum neighborhood is bounced from one agency to another before ending up back where the women started, at Watanabe's section.
The night of carousing, financed when Watanabe cashes in half his savings, emerges as an impulsively hedonistic runaround, pictorially charged by Mr. Kurosawa's impressions of a teeming, pleasure-seeking Tokyo in the early 1950s.
During a third phase, Watanabe is attracted to the youngest member of his section, a cheerful girl named Toyo (Miki Odagiri) who would prefer factory work at a toy company to the tedium of office routine at public affairs. Her boss has been AWOL for several days following his medical appointment, and it greatly amuses Toyo to encounter him at large on the street.
She proves a genuine tonic, and Watanabe treats her to presents and meals during a day of truancy that culminates with a sincere but aborted attempt to confide his troubles to his son, Mitsou (Nobue Kaneko), fuming in priggish dignity at the home they share with the younger man's wife, Kazue (Kyoko Seki, who has a wonderful malicious grin).
Unable to break through this estrangement, Watanabe tries to cling to Toyo, who becomes offended and even frightened at his needy solicitude. This conflict with a surrogate daughter culminates in a brilliant turning-point sequence, staged at a restaurant where the background provides a festive kind of resistance to the tension between Toyo and Watanabe: a birthday party. The eventual singing of "Happy Birthday" heralds the flash of inspiration that reinvigorates the hero. There is something he can do to justify his last days.
A masterful inversion brings the "runaround" motif full circle: Watanabe must duplicate the earlier efforts of the neighborhood mothers in order to sell his playground proposal to bureaucratic superiors. Persuasion requires all his waning energy. He becomes a combination of supplicating irresistible force and humble immovable object.
Before this consummation, Mr. Kurosawa and his co-writers, Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto, pull a daring, belated structural switch: The final episodes unfold after Watanabe's death. The continuity takes a postmortem somersault moments after the hero acquires his sense of mission: Watanabe is dead, and we find ourselves at his wake listening to the recollections of boozy and maudlin guests. His heroism is refracted through a patchwork of their self-centered and often deluded impressions.
Evidently, the filmmakers regarded the Japanese as shameless overemoters when assembled for mournful occasions. The tearful and vociferous excess at the Watanabe rite is a singular spectacle of gallows humor.
Takashi Shimura's superb performance creates an unassailable illusion of decency and sacrifice, but the illusion is secured by his passage through a labyrinth of hard knocks, exposing ludicrous and humiliating attributes along his path to goodness and mercy. For example, Watanabe is obliged to recognize the perfect justice of Toyo's nickname for him: the Mummy.
Certain heartbreaking moments, notably Mr. Shimura's warbling of a long-remembered love ballad, teeter on the edge of miscalculation, but ultimately, "Ikiru" is so soundly constructed that even trace elements of bathos can't undermine its cumulative emotional impact.
Moviegoers whose familiarity with Mr. Kurosawa began with the recent AFI Theater series devoted to the director's collaboration with Toshiro Mifune should have little trouble identifying Mr. Shimura as the woodcutter from "Rashomon" and the sagacious leader of "The Seven Samurai," Kambei.
The Kurosawa apparatus at its most accomplished makes this entire period of international filmmaking the decade or so following World War II look like a golden age to rival any contenders in the history of the medium.

TITLE: "Ikiru"
No MPAA rating (made in 1952, years before the advent of the rating system; adult subject matter, revolving around a character suffering from terminal cancer; occasional vulgarity and fleeting profanity)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay by Mr. Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni. Cinematography by Asakazu Nakai. Art direction by Shu Matsuyama. Music by Fumio Hayasaka. In Japanese with English subtitles
140 minutes

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