A Month of Kurosawa: Ikiru (1952)

To celebrate the upcoming release of my book, Akira Kurosawa: A Viewer’s Guide, due out Dec. 15 from Rowman & Littlefield — preorder here! — I’ll be doing capsule reviews all month covering every single Kurosawa film and posting (very) brief excerpts. These will be short impressions and recommendations, nothing more. For a full, detailed analysis of each, grab the book!

Ikiru (1952)

If there is a film that made me want to write Akira Kurosawa: A Viewer’s Guide, it might be Ikiru. When I first saw the movie about 15 years ago, it was damn near a life-changing experience. It’s also the reason why Takashi Shimura is my favorite of Kurosawa’s regular players — yes, even above the beloved Toshiro Mifune.

Ikiru, roughly translating to “to live,” tells the story of Kanji Watanabe, a lonely government worker who discovers he has just a few months before he succumbs to stomach cancer. Having previously allowed the last 30 years of his life to slip through his fingers, he tries to give meaning to his final days, searching for his reason for existing even as his family and colleagues grow more distant from him.

Ikiru is bold, affecting, sad, and joyous. It takes liberties with chronology, jumping around in time to great effect. It pulls a similar trick as Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, but nearly a decade before that landmark film. (I won’t spoil what that trick is.) Shimura’s performance is so quiet, so slow, so understated, it’s astonishing that it’s as moving as it is. And the message sent by the film is a delicate balancing act between hopefulness and nihilism, one that will leave you questioning your own place in the world.

This chapter is the longest in the book, and for good reason: there is a lot to unpack here. It’s as thematically rich as any film in Kurosawa’s career, a dense tapestry of ideas and emotions that somehow also manages to be simple, direct, and accessible. Roger Ebert called Ikiru “one of the few movies that might actually be able to inspire someone to lead his or her life a little differently ” for good reason.

From the book:

Ikiru simultaneously prompts us to consider what gives our lives value and purpose, suggests these efforts are ultimately wasted, but also finishes with a glimmer of hope that people really can change (as represented by Kimura). It’s another Kurosawa film about an individual finding his calling, and it’s perhaps his greatest.

There is so much to like here, if I attempted to outline it all I’d come across as if I’m gushing — and it would be well-deserved. I cannot recommend this movie enough. Forget about just pointing Kurosawa fans to see this: Anyone who likes classic movies needs to see this. Anyone. This gets my highest recommendation. It’s essential viewing for anyone who appreciates great cinema.

Check out my upcoming book for a full analysis exploring this film’s ideas, themes, good points, and bad

You can get the movie in this excellent release from the Criterion Collection