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.


Classic Bit Review: Drunken Angel (1948)

Drunken Angel, aka 酔いどれ天使 Yoidore tenshi, is a drama film directed by legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. The film stars his two favourite actors Takashi Shimura and Toshiro Mifune. Drunken Angel is the first film collaboration between Mifune and Kurosawa, but most definitely not the last.

The films Kurosawa made prior to this were often not reflecting his style of filmmaking. Despite being an Occupation film, where the US occupied Japan from 1945 to 1952, it features many of Kurosawa’s traits such as using weather as a part of the story, and the master and disciple relationship between the leads. 

The film follows a doctor, Sanada played by Shimura, who is an excellent curer of Tuberculosis, but he is a drunk. His life takes a drastic turn as he treats a small time gangster, Matsunaga played by Mifune, for a gun wound but soon sees symptoms of T.B. Matsunaga is too proud of first to see the doctor again until his situation worsens. Sanada gives him an ultimatum that he should give up booze and women or die, so he almost successfully does so until his big boss returns to town. Once everyone finds out he has T.B. he is essentially downgraded and degraded by the people of the town, so in a drastic turn to confront his former boss who steals his girl as well, he ends in a knife fight which ultimately takes his life. The only people who grieves for him are his former doctor who formed a bond with him, and a girl from a local tavern who proclaimed her love for him almost tempting him to run away with her. 

The film is beautifully shot and the music is brilliant in providing a contrast to the mood of the scene. The cuts are quick but exciting. The film has almost a more America in the 1920s feel to it due to the costumes and the dancehall. The film is arguably the first Yakuza in Japanese cinema, and provides a strong inspiration for other films of this genre.

Drunken Angel, referring the drunken doctor who helps people and the good hearted Yakuza who’s drinking led to his demise. This wasn’t my first Kurosawa film but it’s definitely my favourite. whilst Stray Dog and Rashomon are two of my other favourites, Drunken Angel is my favourite as I think we finally see Kurosawa as the master that he is. Definitely a recommended watch for Japanese Cinema fans and overall movie buffs.