Review of The Criterion Collection Blu-ray edition.

d. Akira Kurosawa (1952)
Spine: #221
Blu-ray Release Date: November 24, 2015

Screen captures below are taken from The Criterion Collection Blu-ray disc, but resolution has been reduced from 1920x1080 to 900x506 and slightly compressed. You may click on them to view the 900x506 image.

Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru was one of the first titles I watched when I discovered The Criterion Collection in 2004. It had just been released on DVD, and I was working my way through as much Kurosawa as I could. It made such an impact on me (and, I know, others) that ever since Criterion started upgrading DVD releases to Blu-ray — essentially, for the past five or six years — I’ve been expecting it every month. Alas, each year passed by without an upgrade of this beautiful film, and I grew worried that people who only watch films on Blu-ray were missing something great. The wait has ended. You can now pick up the Criterion Collection’s new Blu-ray edition of Kurosawa’s compassionate film.

Ikiru Cover

Ikiru means “to live,” and it is a nice exploration of what that phrase means. The film came out in 1952, just one year after the end of the Allied Occupation that followed World War II. After more than a decade spent espousing contradictory, top-down ideals, first from the Japanese government that took the country to war and then from the occupation that tried to instill Western values into the defeated nation, Japanese citizens (and artists) found themselves rebuilding in the ashes. In some ways, Ikiru is a painful look at self discovery — how should we live — in a time when a nation was doing some soul searching. Ikiru looks at various strata of society dealing with post-War Japan as one man attempts to take the measure of his seemingly disappointing life?

But Ikiru sticks with me because it is deeply personal and deeply human, transcending any particular social or historical context. This is one man’s quest to find out how to live after he suffers and existential crisis and wonders if he’s got any kind of purpose. The basic question is familiar and explored in various ways in films such as It’s a Wonderful Life and Groundhog Day. I admire those two particular films a great deal, but Ikiru still feels more personal; after all, in it the man on the road to discovery has no supernatural intervention, and, because the existential crisis he suffers is sparked by his cancer diagnosis and he knows that death is just around the corner, he won’t necessarily be around long enough to enjoy any insights he gleans.

The dying man is Kanji Watanabe, played by one of my favorite actors of all time, Takashi Shimura. He has spent most of his life as a bureaucrat in Tokyo City Hall. He takes his job seriously — perhaps too seriously: he notoriously has not taken a day off for decades.

Ikiru 1

When Kanji goes to the doctor’s office for a check up, he feels a sense of dread. Perhaps he feels this dread every time he goes to the doctor’s office, always expecting dire news, but this time it is worsened when another patient starts babbling about dying, even telling him that the doctor will basically lie if the news is bad: “If he tells you you can eat anything you want, it means you have less than a year.” When the doctor does tell Kanji that he has a simple stomach ailment, and can eat anything he wants, this is Kanji takes this as confirmation that his life is ending.

While played slightly comically at this point, which allows us to view Kanji as a recognizably fearful human being worried about his existence even without proof that it is coming to an end, Kanji is right to be concerned. The doctor is simply avoiding the bad news: Kanji has stomach cancer, and less than a year to live.

Ikiru 2

But what is the significance of Kanji’s impending doom? He is essentially alone in the world: his wife has already died, and his son is thinking primarily of his own family. Though he might feel compelled to be at work every day, and he has amassed a certain amount of power and prestige, his job is not vital, and he realizes that everyone there will do just fine without him — probably even if no one at all takes his spot.

While Kanji is struggling with his own question of how to make his life meaningful, if not even to others at least to himself, Kurosawa allows us to see the lives of many other individuals: his co-workers, who have yet to have such a serious existential crisis, wonder why Kanji has changed; his son and daughter-in-law, who feel the father is more of a nuisance and think more about their inheritance. In the film, there are relatively few people who seem to have a healthy degree of pleasure in their day-to-day life. Most others are passing time, amassing wealth or power, frustrated even while they succeed, reminding us that even if we have the money to spend on a “really good time,” which, as he tells a stranger, Kanji has, they have never learned how to spend it.

Again, the premise may seem familiar, but Ikiru is infused by powerful elements that increase our intimacy with Kanji. He is basically alone in his struggle, and we watch him cry himself to sleep one night. At another moment, he tells someone that as a child he once thought he was drowning, a memory which, again, reminds us of his inner fears held for years; he says that when he was drowning, his parents were far away, and he feels the same sensation now with his son. What a tragedy!

While the film does allow Kanji a sense of worth, it does not dispel all of the problems we face that distract us from living the kind of life that is worth living. Kurosawa knows that his audience will leave this picture encouraged to take a look at their lives and make some changes. He also knows that most will forget that resolve almost immediately. Perhaps not all of us will, though.

The Criterion Blu-ray:

  • This Blu-ray edition comes from a newly restored 4K digital transfer. It looks fantastic, if not pristine.
  • A full-length audio commentary from 2003 by Stephen Price. Price is a Kurosawa expert who also excels in Japanese film in general (this year I’ve enjoyed his commentaries for Kihachi Okamoto’s Sword of Doom and Masaki Kobayashi’s Kwaidan). Price looks at the film’s structure as well as the philosophical dilemmas the film addresses.
  • A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies: This is a 1:21:22-minute documentary from 2000 that goes through much of Kurosawa’s work and methods, as well as his impact on filmmaking.
  • A 41:38- minute 2003 documentary on Ikiru from the series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. Again, this features interviews with Kurosawa, but also with several other collaborators on the film, including Takashi Shimura.
  • The 3:31-minute trailer.
  • A fold-out insert featuring “Ikiru Many Autumns Later,” an essay by Pico Iyer, and “To Live,” an excerpt from Donald Richie’s 1965 book The Films of Akira Kurosawa.
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