The collaboration of director Akira Kurosawa and actor Toshiro Mifune
from the late fifties through the mid-sixties produced some of the most
amazing films ever to
Japan. Yet one has to wonder what kind of wonderful things Kurosawa and
character actor Takashi Shimura could have
accomplished together in those years. Films like STRAY DOG
featured Shimura and Mifune in roughly equal proportion,
but sometime after SEVEN
SAMURAI, Kurosawa pegged Mifune as his main
star, and Shimura's parts became increasingly smaller. IKIRU
the only Kurosawa film from 1948 through 1965 not to feature Mifune in
the cast. Without Mifune's overpowering presence, Takashi
Shimura's subtler, warmer talents are allowed to shine throughout
IKIRU, one of Kurosawa's undisputed masterpieces.
Movie fans not familiar with Kurosawa may still fondly recall Shimura as the kind Professor Yamane in the original GODZILLA (GOJIRA). Typical of a character actor's career, the same year Shimura appeared in GODZILLA, he starred in Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI as well as in THE LIFE OF OHARU for another prominent Japanese director, Kenji Mizoguchi. Fans of Toho sci-fi will recall Shimura from many a campy non-classic, such as FRANKENSTEIN CONQUERED THE WORLD and THE MYSTERIANS. A waste of a great talent, yes, but such was life in the Japanese studio system.
With his bulging, baggy eyes, downturned mouth and craggy face, Shimura was never going to be a traditional leading man, but some feel he was even a better actor than Mifune. Whereas Mifune's performances in SEVEN SAMURAI, THRONE OF BLOOD and YOJIMBO all bear some resemblance to each other, Shimura brought whatever was needed to each character, melting into a part in a way Mifune could not. If Mifune was like James Cagney, with the actor's strong personality overriding his roles, Shimura was Edward G. Robinson in that actor's later years, able to submerge himself into any character. In IKIRU, Shimura portrays Kanji Watanabe, an aging goverment worker dying of cancer. Directly following IKIRU, Shimura would star in SEVEN SAMURAI as the lead roninKambei, arguably his greatest role ever and one that is as far from his character in IKIRU as one could imagine. There are moments in IKIRU when the criminally underrated Shimura can shatter your heart using nothing but his eyes.
IKIRU shows some influence of one of Kurosawa's favorite American directors, Frank Capra, although, it is IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE through the looking glass. Whereas Capra's George Bailey discovers what impact he has had on others only after he is granted the wish that he had never been born, it takes the realization of impending death from stomach cancer to show Kurosawa's Kanji Watanabe that he has had no impact at all. IKIRU is, for most of its running time, an extremely sad film, with Shimura creeping his way through the film almost literally as one of the living dead.
Yet over the course
of the films two
and a half
hour running time, hope and optimism break through, as
Watanabe finds fleeting happiness, first with a night out on the town
accompanied by a philosophical novel-writing stranger, and later, in a
platonic relationship with an attractive young office worker,
vivaciously played by Miki
The final section of
the film is a
bit of a surprise. When Watanabe returns to his job at
the public affairs office and attempts to have a long-requested
built before he dies, most films of this type would be wrapping up
quickly, perhaps with a freeze-frame and subtitle ("Watanabe got his
park built and all the children loved him 'til the end of his
days."). But Kurosawa immediately cuts to five months later,
Watanabe now dead. The
rest of the film features his co-workers at
the wake, unraveling the mysteries of Watanabe's final
It is brilliant in
concept, instantly removing sentiment and pathos with a CITIZEN
KANE-like examination of the man's life and
motives in those last few months, but this "second movie" plays better
the second time you see it. At first, it seems to be slow
and talkie, but there is some aching
beauty still to be found in
this end piece, especially a famous flashback scene of Watanabe, just
death, gently rocking on a swing on a
snowy night in the park he had championed into existence, softly
singing to himself an
song about the fleeting nature of life.
Despite my misgivings over the concluding section, IKIRU is one of my three favorite Kurosawa films (along with YOJIMBO and THRONE OF BLOOD) and is one of the director's most touching works. It also happens to be one of Kurosawa's cinematic masterpieces, with more brilliant scenes and outstanding compositions than you'll find in almost any other film by the same director. Finally, IKIRU is the peak of Shimura's work with Kurosawa and the film I immediately think of whenever I see or hear another tribute to Kurosawa that mentions Toshiro Mifune a thousand times and neglects to bring up Shimura at all. Yeah, it's a pet peeve. ½ - JB
ADD ANOTHER QUOTE AND MAKE IT A GALLON
"I can't afford to hate anyone. I don't have that kind of time."
Ikiru (2007 - Japanese television)
A Hollywood remake has been in development since 2004. With any luck, it will remain in development hell forever.