Ikiru (1952) tells the story of an older sararīman named Kani Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) who is diagnosed with stomach cancer, prompting the bureaucrat to actually “live”. With Ikiru Akira Kurosawa probes at Japanese society in the wake of WWII and the great economic boom looking for connections to the tenets that defined the more traditional culture of his youth. This is Kurosawa’s brand of “Capra-corn”, told with the signature stylistic flourishes that defined Stray Dog (1949) and Rashomon (1950).
Ikiru is sentimental, tragic, and ultimately optimistic and I love it. This is my favorite Kurosawa film, seconded by the vastly under appreciated Red Beard (1965). While I really respect Kurosawa’s signature samurai films, I find that he’s equally adept at melodrama. Red Beard and Ikiru were two of the first films that I acquired when I began working at a video store way back in high school, so there is a deep personal connection as well.
One of the things I am really enamored with about this period of Kurosawa’s career is the grain and texture of these films themselves, especially with Ikiru. The grain gives everything this musty feel to it, adding to the claustrophobia of Watanabe’s office. The texture helps to disguise the illusion of snow during the film’s resolution which was photographed in a studio. Ikiru looks and feels like a memory of a story one heard a long time ago.
It’s clear to me that Kurosawa had a very special collaborative relationship with screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto. Almost every film that these two men made together, including Ikiru, has become a milestone in world cinema history. Ikiru may be the most intimate and personal of the films they wrote together, reflecting their own quiet anxieties about a national culture struggling to redefine itself after the trauma of the war.