Review: Ikiru (To Live, 1952)


Life can be a downer, we all know that!

Written By: Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa & Hideo Oguni
Directed By: Akira Kurosawa

Yet we all know that life can be truly inspiring and fulfilling. Akira Kurosawa understands life, possibly better than most people do and he shows that in Ikiru. A fulfilling life, a happy life, that is what we all want, yet most of us aren’t willing to endure the suffering it takes to get such a life. In a perfect world we wouldn’t have to suffer to be happy, but we don’t live in a perfect world. We live in a damaged world, one that can and does put people through the ringer. Ikiru shows us how life can overwhelm you and in the process you can end up going through the motions without any enjoyment for what you are doing. Kurosawa guides us through the suffering that life requires for you to be happy, but he shows us that in the end the happiness you will achieve is your just reward for any suffering you endure. We can all be happy, it’s just a question of whether or not you are willing to go through the pains of finding that happiness.

There are a lot of little things done right in Ikiru that add up as the film progresses. It is interesting to watch Watanabe function after he finds out he has stomach cancer. Every interaction and meeting he has takes on a new meaning for him. Kurosawa brilliantly ties in moments we view initially as meaningless with moments of great revelation, the people runaround montage in the beginning instantly makes the Deputy Mayor look like a fool when he is giving his speech at the funeral and we instantly dislike him. My favorite little moment was that of Watanabe in the hallway at City Hall silently backing down a gaggle of gangsters. In my notes I wrote “Shimura backing down gangsters=awesome” and that perfectly sums it up.

Takashi Shimura was a regular of Kurosawa’s, yet he never seems to get much recognition. After watching him in Ikiru it’s hard to see why this is the case. He has enchanting wide eyes that express so much throughout the film. Watanabe is a man of limited motion, but he is man of immense emotion. He expresses himself through his eyes, in most scenes Shirmura only needs to look at you and the entire scene is understood. His lack of movement also helps to add to the character, making him seem feeble of body, but in the end vigorous of spirit. As cliche as it may sound, Shimura just nails it, he is perfect in every way, and while the other actors do their part, Shimura stands out and carries every moment he is in the picture.

Truth be told, up until Watanabe dies I felt Ikiru was shaping up to be a really good movie, but not a great or legendary one. There was a slight lull to the pace that was holding the movie back, but after his death Ikiru really took off. The juxtaposition of using Watanabe’s funeral/wake to hammer home the point of what others perceive as opposed to what we and Watanabe know was perfect. Every scene from the moment his funeral starts till the end of the movie was excellent. There was power in the scene when the Kuroe residents grieve over Watanabe’s death while the city officials bicker over who should get the credit for the park. The eventual revelation of the people at the wake is only made more poignant by the realization of the audience in the final scene at City Hall that they will not change, that they are rooted in their ways and will not live as Watanabe learned to live.

The final scene at City Hall speaks to Japanese culture, but I also believe it speaks to the world as a whole. It illuminates mans inability to go beyond what they know and how those that do go beyond are looked down upon. Watanabe was the only man at City Hall who truly lived, yet they look down upon him and we see in the end that they are not willing to leave their comfort zone and endure the suffering and pain that is required to truly live and be happy.

Another excellent picture from a legend in Akira Kurosawa. Ikiru is poignant with true sentiment and an honest message. Another legend in Takashi Shimura delivers a brilliant performance. There are moments of sadness in Ikiru, but in the end there is satisfied joy to be found. Ikiru connects with people the world over and it should connect with anyone who watches it. Ikiru is a testimony to the happiness we all can achieve, so do yourself a favor and suffer through Watanabe’s pain to find the same happiness he does at the end.




2 responses to “Review: Ikiru (To Live, 1952)

  1. I watch this film at least twice a year. It is definitely Kurosawa’s best. I’m glad to see someone else who understands the quality and under-appreciation of Takashi Shimura’s work. He is my favorite actor of all time.

  2. Shimura is a great one, I can’t think of anything I’ve seen him in that I didn’t like.

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