Ikiru is Kurosawa’s best film in a career that laid claim to more than a few masterpieces
His fourteenth film in a thirty movie career, it surpasses such achievements as Seven Samurai (inspiration for The Magnificent Seven), The Hidden Fortress (a key influence on Star Wars), Yojimbo (remade as A Fistful of Dollars), and Ran (Kurosawa’s astonishing feudal Japan take on King Lear).
The tale of a spiritually dead white-collar worker who is reanimated upon discovering stomach cancer has left him with three months to live sounds mawkish, but Kurosawa films it with the same roving camera energy he would use in the climactic rain-sodden battle of Seven Samurai, his next movie.
Long-time Kurosawa associate Shimura is the white collar worker who has devoted his life to civil service in an inefficient City Office, and is unloved by his sneering colleagues and a distant son (Kaneko) and uncaring daughter-in-law (Seki).
Over the lengthy but never dull running time Shimura attempts to live, first by blowing cash in a night on the town with a pulp writer, and then by vicariously absorbing the energy of a young female firebrand from his office (Odagiri), before realising that doing something for those suffering in reconstruction period Tokyo is his true calling.
Keeping audiences on their toes, Kurosawa and his co-writers move the third act to after Shimura’s death, flashing back to his battles with petty jobsworths protecting their paper shuffling jobs, slimy politicos (his timid showdown with the deputy mayor is as exciting as any samurai battle), and third-rate rent-a-thugs wanting to stamp on his altruism.
Kurosawa is as harsh on inflexible Japanese bureaucracy as he was on samurai clans, the yakuza, and other groups that stifled individuals in favour of repressive groups, and great location filming offers a fascinating look at post-war Tokyo.
Shimura’s performance is a heartwrenching portrayal of brokeback resilience, going from wide-eyed horror at a life wasted to wide-eyed sparkle (aided by Kurosawa’s subtle lighting) at a life lived.
Feelgood in ways synthetic romcoms can only dream of and never falling into disease-of-the-week self-pity, Ikiru is Japan’s It’s A Wonderful Life with an ending guaranteed to leave eyes moist and smiles wide.
And despite being ignored by Hollywood for so long, the remake is currently in development with My Left Foot’s Jim Sheridan behind the camera.