A Close Look at Ikiru

Kurosawa
Kurosawa
Mifune
Mifune

A look at the classic Japanese film "Ikiru" by world renowned director Akira Kurosawa.


Akira Kurosawa (March 23, 1910 – September 6, 1998) was a Japanese film director, screenwriter, editor and producer. His career spanned over 57 years during which he wrote and directed over thirty films. He’s widely regarded as one of the most influential film directors of all time, with directors as diverse as George Lucas, Ingmar Bergman Robert Altman, Roman Polanski, Stephen Spielberg, Martin Scorcese and Quentin Tarrantino and many more citing him as an influence on their work.

Kurosawa entered the Japanese film industry in 1936, working on numerous films as an assistant director and scriptwriter. He made his directorial debut in 1943 with the popular action film Sanshiro Sugata (a.k.a. Judo Saga). For Drunken Angel (1948), which established Kurosawa as one of the most important young Japanese filmmakers, he cast unknown actor Toshiro Mifune in the starring role. This pair would go on to collaborate on fifteen other films.

Rashomon, which premiered in Tokyo in August of 1950 also starred Mifune and on September 10, 1951 became the surprise winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival leading to it’s subsequent release in North American and European cinemas. The commercial and critical achievement of this film opened Western film markets, for the first time, to the Japanese film industry, which led to international acclaim for other Japanese filmmakers. Throughout the 1950s and early ‘60s, Kurosawa directed about one film per anum, including the highly regarded films such Ikiru (1952), Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961). His output slowed in the mid 60’s and nearly halted in the 70's but his work--including his final two epics, Kagemusha (1980) and Ran (1985) continued to win awards, including the Palme d'Or for Kagemusha. By this time he was more respected overseas than in his native Japan (Japanese critics tended to pan his work as elitist, largely because he focused on heroes rather than ordinary citizens).

In 1990, he was awarded the Academy Award for Lifetime Achievment and was posthumously named "Asian of the Century" in the "Arts, Literature, and Culture" category by AsianWeek magazine. He is cited by CNN as "one of the [five] people who contributed most to the betterment of Asia in the past 100 years”.

While putting finishing touches on After the Rain in 1995, Kurosawa slipped and broke the base of his spine. Bound to a wheelchair, he would never direct another film, destroying his longtime wish to die on the set while shooting a movie.

Following the accident Kurosawa's health began to decline. His mind remained sharp and active, but and for the last half year of his life, he was basically bedridden, listening to music and watching television at home. At the age of 88, on September 6, 1998, Kurosawa died of a stroke in Setagaya, Tokyo at the age of 88.

His legacy lives on through films, including Ikiru, that are still enjoyed by film audiences all over the world.



Ikiru

Ikiru (translated "To Live") is a 1952 film directed by Akira Kurosawa. The films' protagonist, Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), is a bureaucrat in urban Japan, living a mundane, meaningless life who discovers he has stomach cancer and a very short time to live. Despite it's rather bleak outlook, the film is actually about life, not death and has some of the most beautifully filmed scenes of the sound era.

The three questions being used to formulate this article are questions used by a film teacher to analyze this film from the perspective of a film student and film maker. Many consider this film to be Kurosawa's finest. If you have seen the film, perhaps these questions and answers will help you to view the film in a new light. If you haven't, bookmark this article, check out one of the links below (or queue it on netflix), watch it, and come back and read.

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The woodcutter scene from Roshomon (begins at 7:52)

Watanabe on the swing set in the park he helped build
Watanabe on the swing set in the park he helped build

Only two years separate "Roshomon" and "Ikiru"

Roshomon explores the nature of reality and story in fuedal landscape. Ikiru is a tender, understated portrait of the interior awakening of an unremarkable 20th century man facing his mortality. Despite their differences, both films could be seen as coming from the same artistic sensibility. Compare and contrast the narrative and cinematic elements of these two films using specific scenes.

The most striking similarity between this film [Ikiru] and Roshoman, despite the fact that Takashi Shimura appears in both of them, is the way Kurosawa uses stories within his stories. Roshoman is a film about stories and is told almost entirely through the characters’ retelling of events, all with drastically different motives and circumstances. The audience does not believe these stories, or, at the very least, approaches the tales with skepticism. The last third of Ikiru is told through stories told at the wake of our protagonist Watanbe. These stories are believed to be true and they speak to the final months of Watanabe’s life. In the case of Ikiru, the audience is lead to believe that these stories are true and that the characters have been affected by the events.

As for the filming, the beginning of Roshoman when the woodcutter is walking through the woods and the ending of Ikiru, when Watanabe is sitting on a swing set, are very interesting scenes. The scene in Roshoman is filmed from many angles, including below the character and the viewer is taken on the journey with the woodcutter. The camera does not really ever focus on his face and seems more concerned with showing the length of his journey. Often, the camera is obscured by tree branches and leaves , natural bridges, etc. We are not really sure where we are or where we are going.

In Ikiru, when Watanabe is on the swing set the night of his death, the camera is at first obscured by a jungle gym. We can see a figure on a swing, but we can’t see who it is. Unlike in the woodcutter scene (the woodcutter in Roshomon is also played by Shimura), the camera is much less frenetic and is filming an urban environment, not a natural one. The camera, after a slow pan around, eventually focuses in on our protagonist, his face, his posture, his mood: these all seem clear to us. The camera shows him as a man accepting of his fate. The swing set, of course, could also symbolize a rebirth into the carefree existence of a child and also represents the park that he created in the final months of his life.

Both the journey through the woods and the scene on the swing set represents rites of passage: The wood cutter’s into a horrific tale of murder and Watanabe’s into the afterlife. The peaceful shots to end Ikiru show the peace of our character and the frenetic, unfocused, busy camera to open Rashomon also show where the characters being filmed are at that point in their life journey.


Watanabe in his office
Watanabe in his office
Watanabe flees the scene
Watanabe flees the scene

Watanabe is heroic in his capacity for change

What visual signs underline this quality?

The storyline renders itself easy for heroic actions to occur. Our narrator is stuck in a rut, working in a bureaucratic swamp of stamps and buck passing. He is hunched over, unsmiling and speaks mostly in indecipherable mumbles (I’m assuming indecipherable because, even though it’s Japanese, he seems especially difficult to understand). He seems to have no life outside of work in him and no joy. His own son live sin his home with his wife and treats his father poorly. He is an old man before he is an old man. When he discovers cancer in his stomach and that he will be dead in six months, he becomes even more depressed.

But, as happens often when faced with tragedy, he makes a decision. He is known as a bit of a miserly curmudgeon and realizes he has nothing really for which he will be remembered. A spring enters his steps. He begins to spend money, he begins to go out, he becomes slightly less hunched over, he woos a young woman (although their relationship is not sexual). We see him rise above his situation and decide, at the behest of a gaggle of young mothers, to take up the project of building a new park. This will be his legacy. Nothing stops him. Even getting threatened by a gang of ruffians, even being told 'no' by his superior, he bravely marches in the face of adversity and gets done what he believes needs to be done.

He succeeds. His face seems to have more life. He still is hunched and his feet shuffle, but his countenance… his aura if you will… is prouder. He’s told no one of his illness making the impact of his actions more puzzling and profound to those around him.


Kurosawa has been called the most Western of all Japanese Directors

Ikiru-- a portrait of Japanese urban society only seven years after the end of World War 2-- shows a kind of western influence. Describe it.

Without knowing much about prewar Japanese cinema, this question is difficult to answer. However, if one simply looks at the way music and dancing are used in the film, the Western influence becomes obvious. This is especially evident in the nightclub scene which takes place the evening of Watanabe's diagnosis. I can perhaps see an influence in the way Watanabe and the author interact, both with each other and with the general public. There seems to be more of an openness with each other than one would typically expect from Japanese culture. The sights and sounds of the city seem very western, crowded with people, very materialistic and sexual. The dialogue seems uncharacteristically informal and the music is brash and jaunty. This film, aside from its rather serious storyline, seems rather informal, and, at times, light hearted, compared even to the formality of a film like Roshomon.


In Summary

I hope you enjoyed this brief exploration into this remarkable film and its remarkable creator. if you haven't seen the film, I hope this article entices you to do so. If you have, I hope this gives you a new appreciation for it.

A draft of this was originally published by me on Wizzley, but since Wizzley refuses to pay me what they promised, I'm moving all my articles off there and onto the far superior hubpages.

Have you seen Ikiru?

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Thanks for Reading.

A FREELANCE WRITER, HONORS STUDENT AND GOVER PRIZE FINALIST, JUSTIN W. PRICE (AKA, PDXKARAOKEGUY) CONSIDERS HIMSELF A POET FIRST AND FOREMOST BUT IS ALSO A SKILLED SHORT STORY, BIOGRAPHER AND HUMOR WRITER. HIS POETRY COLLECTION,DIGGING TO CHINA, WILL BE RELEASED FEBRUARY 2ND, 2013 BY SWEATSHOPPE PUBLICATIONS AND IS CURRENTLY AVAILABLE ON AMAZON AS WELL AS YOUR LOCAL BOOKSELLER.

HIS WORK WILL ALSO BE FEATURED IN BEST NEW FICTION (2014 EDITION), AND HAS APPEARED PREVIOUSLY IN THE RUSTY NAIL, EFICTION, EFICTION HUMOR, THE CRISIS CHRONICLES, THE HELLROARING REVIEW AND THE BELLWETHER REVIEW. HE CURRENTLY SERVES AS MANAGING EDITOR OF EHORROR MAGAZINE AND THE BRIDGEONLINE NEWSPAPER. HE PREVIOUSLY SERVED AS THE POETRY AND CORRESPONDENCE EDITOR FOR THE BELLWETHER REVIEW.

HE WORKS AS A FREELANCE WRITER, EDITOR, AND GHOST WRITER, AND IS WORKING TOWARDS HIS PH.D. HE LIVES IN A SUBURB OF PORTLAND, OREGON WITH HIS WIFE, ANDREA, AND THEIR LABRADOODLE, BELLA.

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Comments 10 comments

PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thansk Girishpuri. It certainly is a masterpiece!


girishpuri profile image

girishpuri 3 years ago from NCR , INDIA

Nice review and sounds like a master piece. Thanks


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Mhatter, it's about time to change that!


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Moon, that is a very flattering comment. I don't even know what to say. Thanks so much and thank you for sharing your story, your wisdom and your insight. Take care as always, my friend.


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks Billy. Can't argue with that!


PDXKaraokeGuy profile image

PDXKaraokeGuy 3 years ago from Portland, Oregon Author

Thanks a lot Jamie. I'm a fairly new recruit to the Kurosawa camp, but I'm glad to be involved. Thanks for reading and commenting!


Mhatter99 profile image

Mhatter99 3 years ago from San Francisco

Thank you for this. I am a Kurosawa fan, but have not seen Ikuru


moonfroth 3 years ago

JUSTIN -- You've blown me away. I saw Seven Samurai in the 70s, a time in my life when I was studying Zen Zen intensely, and I was stunned at how Zen was tissued into every frame of that amazing film. I had never even HEARD of Kurosawa at the time. Since then, I've devoured his work. I have Seven Samurai on VHS and DVD. I've viewed the film well over 50 times--and I find something new every time. Now you've given me the gift of your finr mind and hand on another of his classics and a wonderful compendium of his work at large. You're a great writer and a very giving person--this review should be in a major publication. Thank you a gazillion times over.


billybuc profile image

billybuc 3 years ago from Olympia, WA

Nice review! I have seen the film and I love it...a true masterpiece.


jhamann profile image

jhamann 3 years ago from Reno NV

Kurosawa is my favorite film maker, I think I may have seen the Samauri series a billion times. Thank you for such a great examination of such a great film maker. Jamie

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