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cast: Takashi Shimura, Shinichi Himori, Nobuo Kaneko, and Kyoko Seki

director: Akira Kurosawa

137 minutes (PG) 1952
BFI DVD Region 2 retail

RATING: 8/10
reviewed by Gary Couzens


Kenji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) has worked all his life as a bureaucrat in Tokyo's city hall. When he is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he decides that he needs to do something to add meaning to his life. Unable to talk to his family, and a night out leaving him unfulfilled, he is only able to confide in a young woman co-worker Toyo (Miki Odagiri). Finally, he decides to make his mark by building a children's playground in a poor area of the city.

Made two years after Kurosawa's international breakthrough with Rashomon, and two years before Seven Samurai, Ikiru (usually called Living in English) is usually considered one of the director's finest contemporary works. It has an unusual structure: 90 minutes in, as Watanabe decides to dedicate himself to ensuring the playground is built, a narrator announces "four months later our hero died." The remainder of the film takes place at Watanabe's wake as former colleagues remember him (in flashbacks), and how he put his weight behind the playground project and pushed for its completion.

The performance of Takashi Shumura, a Kurosawa regular, is key. Kurosawa uses a lot of close-ups of his face, establishing a lonely man who finds meaning in his life as it ends. The film's ending is a very poignant one: Watanabe sitting in the swing of the playground he helped build as snow falls around him. The final shot is of the swing, now unoccupied. The pace is measured - at over two and one-quarter hours, this is quite a lengthy film - but we need the time to get to know Watanabe, both before and after his death. Shimura worked for Kurosawa frequently, often playing villains to Toshiro Mifune's heroes, but this is his greatest performance for the director. Their last collaboration was Kagemusha, two years before Shimura's death. Kurosawa is not generally noted as a director of women, but Miki Odagiri creates an impression as the only person able to pierce Watanabe's shell.

Made in black and white and a product of the pre-widescreen era, Ikiru is transferred to DVD in its original 4:3 aspect ratio. The soundtrack is the original Japanese mono, with English subtitles. The extras are a 15-minute introduction by Alex Cox, biographies of Kurosawa and Shimura, a look at other Kurosawa films released on DVD by the BFI and sleeve notes by Philip Kemp.

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