Classic Bit Review: Ikiru (1952)

Kurosawa’s first post-Occupation film, Ikiru (1952), was released in October of that year and was a huge hit in Japan both critically and commercially and in the West too. The film follows Takeshi Shimura’s character as he finds out he has a terminal illness and how he deals with it. Ikiru is also called To Live, which highlights the overall theme of the film as it is Shimura learning how to live. The film deals with the problems of bureaucracy and inefficiency of help within a community, the decay of family life and loss of respect for elders.

The film was different to his previous films, as the lead character dies half way through the film and depicts a more contemporary reading of present Japan showing families concerned with wealth and status rather than caring for their elder relatives and giving them respect. Confucianism is a way of life that China embraced, and eventually was embodied by some in Japan. The notion of the central feature of Confucianism, which revolves almost entirely around issues related to the family, morals, and the role of the good ruler. Therefore, respect for elders and family are important within Japan, as Confucianism is very strong in Japan because it affects and was affected by Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan. Kurosawa emphasises this in Ikiru, as Shimura’s character is the head of his division and yet is mocked and gossiped about as he disappears from work. The disregard for family life is shown in Ikiru, as his son and daughter in law don’t respect him and constantly refer to his retirement money. The film was a success in Japan as it touched upon present day Japanese issues such as Ozu’s Tokyo Story (1953). These past ideologies that influenced Japan would have not been able to be depicted in the Occupation, as the past was discouraged and Shintoism and East Asian religions were dissuaded.

The music and the cinematography are outstanding. and the film itself is just beautiful. Shimura stars in his best role I’ve ever seen him in, he has so much dimension as a character varying from the remorseful father to a charitable member of the community. He begins as a bureaucrat whose son, and daughter in law, only want him to retire just to give them money, not respecting or caring about him. His doctors even refuse to tell him the truth, but he soon realises that he is dying. Ironically, it’s only after his diagnosis that he actually begins to enjoy and live his life as he parties with a poet and befriends a young woman. Ikiru both lifts the human spirit whilst crushing it with heartbreaking moments, such as Takashi Shimura singing the song ‘Gondola No Uta’ which makes both the audience and the people around him suddenly sympathetic.

It is my third favourite Kurosawa film, after Drunken Angel being my first and Rashomon being my second, but it’s a film that you cannot live without. There’s not much to say but it is a masterpiece that will start with a sour taste in your mouth and end with restored faith in humanity. All I can say is Shimura is timeless, and underrated as an actor, but this film lifts him up into the lead and shows of his talents as oppose to being overshadowed by Toshiro Mifune in most of his roles. Shimura both lifts the spirits of the audience, whilst simultaneously bringing it down in perfect harmony.

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