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MOVIE REVIEW : ‘Ikiru’: Classic of Self-Discovery : Kurosawa’s 1952 masterpiece is a story of deep personal emotion set against the backdrop of a reeling postwar society.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Akira Kurosawa begins “Ikiru” oddly, with an X-ray of the hero’s stomach. As we see this blurry image, a narrator says matter-of-factly that “symptoms of cancer are there, but he doesn’t yet know anything about it.”

This opening gambit is startling, and deceptively objective. The voice-over implies detachment and sticks Kurosawa with the challenge of connecting us more emotionally to the last months of Kanji Watanabe’s (Takashi Shimura) life. Of course, Kurosawa does that expertly--"Ikiru” (To Live) is rightfully considered one of his finest movies.

Released in 1952, “Ikiru” (screening Wednesday night as part of Irvine’s films-on-video series) is one of a handful of masterpieces Kurosawa created in the years of societal self-scrutiny that followed Japan’s defeat in World War II. Like “Stray Dog” and “Drunken Angel,” it illuminates a reeling society while telling a story of deep human emotion.

Watanabe becomes more than an X-ray, but somehow less than a man, shortly after the first scene. As Kurosawa continues his tale, we discover that Watanabe works as the head of one of the many government offices in a frustrating tangle of Tokyo bureaucracy, just one of the war’s repercussions.

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While Watanabe hangs his head behind a tower of papers, the narrator tells us that “this is the main character of our story, but it would be boring to talk about him now because he’s just passing the time . . . in fact, he’s barely alive.”

With those words, Kurosawa sets up the dynamic of “Ikiru.” Watanabe, once learning of his terminal cancer, embarks on a journey of self-discovery. If that sounds easy, even prosaic, don’t be misled; the insight Watanabe finds, and his reactions to it, are described in a remarkable string of scenes that fairly bristle with a genius energy. “Ikiru” is nothing like all those soapy made-for-TV movies that clench terminal illness like a weeping towel.

During this post-war period, Kurosawa often sent his hero into the city’s underground as a way to review and renew himself through a new environment. Like the detective in “Stray Dog” who searches Tokyo’s recesses for clues to both a crime and his life, Watanabe descends into Westernized honky-tonks and brothels after meeting up with a sympathetic writer.

The writer (Yunosuke Ito) is like Charon at the river Styx, but it’s only a partial trip across the currents. After a night of hell-raising, where he realizes how shallow his own life has been, Watanabe becomes more depressed. He latches onto a simple, vibrant girl (Miki Odagiri) from his office, hoping to understand the essence of what makes her seem so alive.

She unwittingly provides him with a clue, and Watanabe spends his last months determined to work for the public good. Individually, he succeeds--a scene showing him singing a little song while in a swing in a park he helped build is terrifically moving--but Kurosawa remains pessimistic about the collective experience. None of Watanabe’s colleagues emulate his example--the filmmaker says that we can only count on ourselves to make things better.

Kurosawa does dance on the edge of sentimentality in several passages, but the result is ineffably pure emotions instead of bathos. A memorable example is when Watanabe runs joyously from a restaurant after meeting the girl. As he moves down the stairs, a group of women are singing “Happy Birthday” for a friend who passes Watanabe.

For an instant, it’s as if they’re cheering Watanabe on, him and his rebirth. In someone else’s hands, the scene might feel trite and obvious, but Kurosawa and Shimura wrap it in conviction.

Akira Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” (1952) screens Wednesday at 7 p.m. in the Irvine Civic Center’s Training and Conference Center, 1 Civic Center Plaza, Irvine. Free. (714) 724-6678.

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