Saturday, 14 April 2012

Personal Favourites: Ikiru (1952)

 Ikiru (1952)
With my huge interest in Japanese Cinema, it’s slightly embarrassing not to have properly mentioned the legendary Akira Kurosawa. The likes of Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, heck the majority of Kurosawa’s filmography would have no problem joining my favourite list, however Ikiru is, in my eyes, his masterpiece. Stepping away from his iconic samurai pictures, here he focuses on portraying a charming drama in Japan’s period of recovery after the war and the end of the Allied Occupation. The plot follows City Office bureaucrat Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) when he is diagnosed with terminal cancer. Quiet, committed to the job, and looked down on by family and fellow co-workers, Kanji searches for significance and fulfilment in his life. Friendship, cultural exploration and booze fail to bring any joy. He then finally comes to the realisation that he can make a real difference through his job.
Ikiru’s, which translates to ‘To Live’, story is an emotional journey that definitely brings a tear to my eye every time I watch it. As the translated title implies, we follow and experience the trials and tribulations of Kanji’s search for meaning. This is first and foremost a touching drama that remains engaging and poignant throughout its runtime. Hints of comedy, friendship and goodwill balance with the tragic nature of the narrative forming a truly remarkable film. The character of Kanji is slowly unraveled through his actions in the present, but predominately in his backstory. The death of his wife, the disconnection with his son after the war, and his general subsidence into old age, all are explored through flashbacks that are meticulously interwoven and developed. Meanwhile, themes and social commentaries of Japan’s society and bureaucracy are present throughout, but never become too obvious or forced. And while many have criticised the third act, I personally don’t see a problem with the manner it concludes. It’s a cleverly constructed and an emotionally moving ending, that doesn’t get schmaltzy.  
There’s a real depth and heart to Ikiru that is conveyed through the late Takashi Shimura’s perfect performance. His manner in which he balances subtly with an almost exaggerated exterior and posture, further solidifies his renowned status in global cinema. We see his transformation from the weathered faced and lonely individual, through to his heart-rendering recital of ‘Gondola no Uta’, and then to his irrevocable smile of satisfaction. In turn the audience’s affection towards Kanji alters from an ignorance of his shy and sulking introduction, to a warmth and emotional attachment as he tries to better himself and the lives of others. Meanwhile the supporting cast are superbly developed, each teaching Kanji their interpretations of ‘life’. From his peppy, young female co-worker, Toyo (Miki Odagiri) who finds joy in the smallest of things, to a small-time writer who feels that men should live life to the fullest, they’re all memorable and well-executed. 
Set in the backdrop of a rapidly modernising and westernising Post-war Japan, the story provides a great and detailed commentary on this fascinating period of Japanese history. The growing nature of culture, the economic and the changing aesthetics create a film with visual depth and inquisitiveness, which Kurosawa’s gorgeous cinematography manages to capture. While Rashomon, personally, went too far in its artistic endeavour, a minor criticism of a fantastic film, Ikiru blends the somber, subtle moments with energy and charisma. And its simply fantastic. The traditional black and white manages to capture the contrast between the vibrant and visceral atmosphere of Tokyo’s nightlife, and the snug spaces of Japan’s interior environments, reminiscent illustrations in Yasunari Kawabata’s literature. The pacing of the film is another visible element. There’s a slow, unhurried speed in regards to Shimura’s performance. Meanwhile, the rest of Japan moves quickly and busily. School children skip, automobiles careen and the middle class dance the night away, whilst Kanji plods along, lost and dazed by these practically “alien” surroundings. It’s this idea of visual “contrast” that becomes hugely apparent throughout Ikiru and it’s bloody brilliant. 
Overall, while many will argue and dispute Kurosawa’s “best”, Ikiru will remain my favourite of his influential and legendary career. Takashi Shimura’s touching and magical performance truly makes this feature a magnificent, humanist piece of Japanese cinema, and a pivotal addition to the ‘Drama’ genre. And it’s one that will never be forgotten. 
Now I’m going to go and watch it again. 

Check out my other 'Personal Favourites' in the Features section. 

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