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Eros in Hell; Sex Blood & Madness in Japanese Cinema
(1998), Jack Hunter
The Japanese Film: Art and Industry (1983), Joseph L. Anderson
Archetypes in Japanese Film: The Sociopolitical and Religious
Significance of the Principal Heroes and Heroines
(1989), Gregory Barrett
When he made the film Ikiru in 1952,
Akira Kurosawa was only 42 years old. (He died in 1998.) That Kurosawa was already a
master of the film medium was unmistakable. He had directed more than a dozen films over a
ten year period, including Rashomon in 1950. Seven Samurai followed Ikiru, two years later.
More remarkable than the brilliant film making in Ikiru, however, is its deep and powerful wisdom, wisdom that one might expect from a more senior artist, all the more remarkable in one barely into middle age. Ikiru ("To Live") centers on Kanji Watanabe, a civil servant laboring in the city bureaucracy for thirty years, a widower who never remarried, and the father of an ungrateful son. When Watanabe is told he has terminal cancer, he looks back on the wasteland of his life and, after casting about for meaning, finds a way, his way to leave a mark behind, evidence that he had lived a life worth living.
In a performance of rare and memorable quality, Takashi Shimura plays Watanabe with profound perception and understanding. In his later role in Seven Samurai, Shimura played a powerful warrior, a strong leader of men. Here, in utter contrast, he is bereft. We watch him go through a series of rather ordinary experiences - an escapist night on the town, a game of pachinko, a dinner with a young woman from his office. But as he goes through these motions, he is remembering his life, the turns it took, the things that didn't happen. There are some flashbacks, there is some dialogue, but, most of all, there are thoughts and feelings as they scroll across the actor's face. He uses his entire body, too, bent over, shuffling walk, defeat in every pore. "There's darkness everywhere," he says, "I struggle for something to hold on to."
We will leave the outcome for you, gentle reader - what Watanabe does before he dies and the responses of the people in his life afterwards. Asked by a colleague how he can put up with the intransigence of a selfish and insensitive bureaucrat, Watanabe responds, "I can't be angry with anyone. I haven't the time."
That Kurosawa takes potent shots at the hypocrisy of the power brokers is a fringe benefit from a film that more importantly confronts life and death without avoiding complexity, exploring ideas and emotions with subtlety and compassion. There is not a wasted or a wrong moment. It is a masterpiece.