Playing with time and space by way of unclearly demarcated leaps into the past or unannounced ellipses that skip weeks at a time, Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru breaks neatly in two, structured to sidestep a drawn-out focus on Kanji Watanabe’s (Takashi Shimura) realization that stomach cancer will soon end his rather stubborn existence. The script, co-written by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, and Hideo Oguni, hums with a Dickensian intensity, enmeshing one man’s pitiless existence as a sneering, public service gatekeeper within a postwar Japanese society refusing to dispose of its self-serving bureaucratic law by fully pulling itself into the present through explicit recognition of its necessitated forms of political and economic recovery.
Kurosawa literally stacks the deck against his characters, placing piles of papers throughout the mise-en-scène of Watanabe’s office that either obscure or separate employees from one another—a Wellesian cue of cinematic space overlapping with the class-based formations of contemporary work environments. Unlike Citizen Kane, however, Ikiru’s damned figure is of no real importance or consequence as a man of power; Watanabe barely speaks during the film’s first half hour and, when he does, it’s either in a defeated whimper, as when he longs for his son’s presence, or a fearful affirmation of his terminal disease. After the catastrophic detritus of World War II, men like Charles Foster Kane seem more mythic than merely a decade prior, something Ikiru acutely perceives through its refusal to make Watanabe enticing by way of charisma or brash ego.
Since Watanabe is a rather pathetic figure, Kurosawa relies heavily on locating Watanabe’s humanity through last-ditch efforts to imbue his own life with meaning, which predictably begin as failed, self-serving nights of drinking and wooing a younger co-worker and morph into a selfless dedication to greater public good. He decides to build a public children’s park, but Kurosawa defers the ramifications of these efforts through the film’s two-part structure, shifting focus to Watanabe’s co-workers shortly following Watanabe’s death at roughly the halfway point. The results are Capraesque in their affirmation of a society’s essentially kind inclinations being strangled by corporate greed, whether in the form of recognition or financial gain.
Yet, Kurosawa’s daring formal choices, especially in the film’s first half as Watanabe reckons with his previously timid and unfeeling veneer, are weakened by his proclivities for leavening the narrative through borderline naïve suggestions that an individual life such as Watanabe’s can be salvaged after decades of insignificance. As such, it’s a hollowed sort of humanism, sentimentalizing death by insisting that convictions can still be attained after spending a lifetime sequestered from the logistics and imperatives of a nation’s body politic.
Effectively, it’s a thinly veiled religious parable, where Watanabe’s martyrdom isn’t exactly made noble, but certainly commended, as he circumnavigates the social noise of booze and women to find a meaningful, altruistic end. As such, Ikiru wows for its complicated interrogation (and innovation) of subjective, cinematic experiences of time and memory, but lulls in its commemoration of a wealthy, privileged man who finally decides to care after it’s absolutely confirmed he has no time left to live.
Although the Criterion Collection's new Blu-ray boasts a 4K transfer, the image is often riddled with scratches, debris, and even thick, frame-length cuts, making it one of the company's most puzzling releases in recent years, if only because no other recent release has been pressed looking this shoddy. Surely Criterion could have lessened some of the damage without comprehensively altering the image, as was done with the recent, dazzling transfers for The Apu Trilogy. Whatever the reason, whether out of impossibility or negligence, Ikiru looks and sounds far from fully restored; one wishes Criterion would have held out on the release until a better print surfaced.
The supplements, carried over from the previous DVD release, are a near-excellent assortment of analysis and biography. Stephen Prince's informative and astute feature-length audio commentary provides academic-level analysis, while Kurosawa's career is broached in commendable detail courtesy of two documentaries. The better of the two docs specifically focuses on the production of Ikiru and explains the film's importance in Kurosawa's oeuvre as a mature work, both in content and style, that signaled the director's aspirations to produce masterful art in many forms—not just as a genre director. In "A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movie," Kurosawa's entire career is addressed through alterations between film clips and interviews with the director himself. The film's trailer and a pair of critical essays round out the admirable disc.
The flawed transfer on Criterion's Blu-ray release of Ikiru, itself a flawed, even overrated film, is a bummer, but at least the disc arrives with an informative slew of extras.