Movie review: 'Ikiru'

4 stars (out of 4)

Akira Kurosawa's poignant 1952 masterpiece "Ikiru," which is being released in a newly struck, newly subtitled print at the Music Box Theatre, is both a tragicomedy about how our best intentions are misinterpreted and a profound meditation on an old man's reactions to impending death. With deceptive ease and magnificent simplicity, Kurosawa presents the ironic saga of Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), chief of the citizen's section of a Tokyo City Hall bureau. He discovers he has inoperable stomach cancer and will die within a year, but really, the narrator tells us, he "has been dead for the past 25 years."

Watanabe, a widower whose wife died in childbirth and who lives with his callous son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) and daughter-in-law Kazue (Kyoko Seki), realizes now that his life has been meaningless, and that, despite his seemingly important position, even his son - for whom he has sacrificed everything - appreciates little.

Desperately, he conceals his illness and tries to find a few months' solace in pleasure - in drinking, revelry, strip clubs and a harmless flirtation with pretty young city hall worker Toyo (Miki Odagiri) - which exposes him to ridicule. Then, Watanabe has a flash of illumination. He decides to help a group of lower-class Tokyo petitioners who have been vainly trying to get city help in erecting a children's park over a waste area poisoned with stagnant, polluted water. The weary women have been shuffled from bureaucrat to bureaucrat with no results. Watanabe decides that, in the little time left to him, he'll get the land cleaned and the park erected.

Does the story sound sentimental? Kurosawa, the master of both tragedy ("Ran") and action-adventure ("Seven Samurai"), tells "Ikiru" with the same stunning virtuosity, as no other filmmaker might have dared. For the first part of the film, he plunges us ruthlessly into Watanabe's sad predicament, with unsparingly realistic scenes of the cruelty and neglect he faces. Then, at the moment of seeming redemption, he cuts ruthlessly to the funeral reception after Watanabe's death, and to a group of drunken city officials and co-workers who recall his final (successful) struggle to create the park, but cynically misinterpret everything he did.The movie, which Kurosawa made two years after the worldwide success of his medieval murder mystery "Rashomon," is another examination of the nature of subjectivity. And its approach, which resembles "Rashomon's" radical four-part examination of the "truth," moves us more than any more conventional form could.

The fact that the world so misunderstands the simple kindness with which Watanabe redeems a wasted, unhappy life seems the ultimate blow. Yet, at the same time, we realize, as the funeral party does not, that Watanabe, not any of them, is the true victor and happy man. "Ikiru" is one of the greatest and most convincing of all cinematic testaments to love and humane behavior precisely because it so sedulously avoids easy uplift. His fellows may not comprehend Watanabe, his lonely anguish and final crusade. But we do.

Watanabe is played by Takashi Shimura, who, along with feral leading man Toshiro Mifune, was Kurosawa's favorite star. This role, along with Kambei, the wise warrior-leader of "Seven Samurai," is one of Shimura's two finest, most memorable performances, played so quietly and self-effacingly, yet with such transcendent skill and care, that he rivets our attention on "Ikiru's" scenes of ordinary life in the shadow of death.

Likewise, the film is a masterpiece of craft - of writing, editing, staging and cinematography. But unlike Kurosawa's great action films, it isn't a brilliance that calls attention to itself. It is only afterwards that "Ikiru's" mastery becomes plain: the perfection of style, the wondrous dignity and sorrow of Shimura's acting, the flawless rendering of Japan's dark, confused postwar world.

"Ikiru," which means "to live," is one film that people watch over and over with increasing appreciation as they grow older. If you have never seen it, you should. If you have seen it before, your admiration will only increase.

"Ikiru"
Directed by Akira Kurosawa; written by Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni; photographed by Asakazu Nakai; edited by Kurosawa; art direction by Shu Matsuyama; music by Fumio Hayasaka; produced by Sojiro Motoki. A Cowboy Pictures release of a Janus film; opens Friday at the Music Box Theatre. In Japanese, with English subtitles. Running time: 2:23. No MPAA rating; family (parents cautioned for some intense discussions of death).
Kanji Watanabe (Chief of Citizen's Section) - Takashi Shimura
Kimura (Assistant) - Shinichi Himori
Sakai (Assistant) - Haruo Tanaka
Noguchi (Assistant) - Minoru Chiaki
Toyo Odagiri - Miki Odagiri
Ono (Subsection Chief) - Kamatari Fujiwara

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