Ikiru (1952)

Genres - Drama  |   Sub-Genres - Psychological Drama, Medical Drama  |   Run Time - 143 min.  |   Countries - Japan  |   MPAA Rating - NR
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Review by Jonathan Crow

This contemporary drama from Akira Kurosawa, better known for such sweeping samurai epics as The Seven Samurai (1954), is arguably his best film and the most articulate vision of his existential philosophy. The film's protagonist seems to spring directly from the writings of Jean-Paul Sartre or Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych: a tragic, pathetic figure who has so immersed himself in daily routine that he never learned to live. Only when confronted with his own imminent demise does he give his live meaning by building a playground over an open sewer in an impoverished section of town. The film is structured in a peculiar bifurcated arrangement: it begins as a straightforward plot that, halfway through, shifts into a fragmented narrative recounted in flashbacks by mourners at Watanabe's funeral. In the second half, we witness Watanabe's dogged struggle through the lenses of his baffled co-workers' own unexamined lives. Initially viewing his efforts with suspicion if not contempt, his workers fail to give Watanabe any credit for his single-handed effort to build the park. This section of Ikiru becomes compelling and ironic thanks to Kurosawa's deft depiction of Watanabe's inner state in the first half. Ikiru opens with an X-ray of Watanabe-a literal manifestation of his interior world. The rest of the section, through a tour-de-force of impressionistic and expressionistic cinematic devices, shows Watanabe's slow awakening from his quarter-century stupor to learn what it is to live. Takeshi Shimura delivers a staggering performance as Watanabe; his large pleading eyes and hangdog face burn a haunting image in the viewer's mind long after the film ends. The emotional force of Ikiru leaves the viewer feeling both transformed by Watanabe's evolution and contemplative about one's own life.