Last night I was fortunate enough to attend a showing of Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru; one of a series showings of Kurosawa's films by The Archive of UCLA, as a centennial celebration of his unparalleled career. Kurosawa has long been my favorite director, bar none, so I was excited to learn about this opportunity to see some films of his on the big screen for the first time. Though I was also somewhat disappointed to learn that this series of showings was Part 2, with Part 1 showing many of Kurosawa's best and most entertaining films such as Seven Samurai and Rashomon. I suppose I should simply consider myself lucky to get the chance to experience any of his films on the big screen.
The Billy Wilder theater is located in the Westwood district of Los Angeles, near UCLA, on Wilshire boulevard and is a phenomenal little venue. Consisting of a single screen with stadium seating and exquisite picture and sound quality. The Archive continuously presents showings of various older films at the venue, and if you ever have the chance to see anything there I highly recommend you do so. This particular series celebrating Kurosawa's career still has a couple showings remaining, including Kurosawa's adaptations of Macbeth and Dostoevsky's The Idiot.
Onto the film itself. I own Ikiru on Criterion DVD and have seen numerous times. I have always considered it one of Kurosawa's best, and this viewing only heightened my view of it. All of the major movements of the film are handled deftly and with characteristic depth. Given a thumbnail sketch of the plot--an older gentlemen learns that he has months to live and seeks to find meaning in life--it would be easy for the film to come off as trite or banal. But it doesn't at all. The characters are so rich and the events are so well observed that it has an immediacy and poignancy that more contemporary takes on the same subject lack. Not to mention the sheer strength of Kurosawa's craft serves to elevate the entire project.
Weight is added to the proceedings by placing them against a backdrop of a broad critique of the modern bureaucratic state, and the relatively trivial nature of modern work in general. Something that is as relevant today as it was when the film was made in 1952. The montage near the beginning of the film--shot from a first-person perspective of a group of peasants lodging a complaint with City Call and getting the proverbial bureaucratic run around--is hilarious and ingenious.
The 2nd act consists of a desperate Watanabe attempting to 'truly live', but not really knowing how to. And so opting for a binge of gambling, drinking and the social scene. After his adventures prove hollow he latches on to a young female co-worker who seems very 'alive' to him. As he attempts to determine why and how it is that she is 'so alive', he has an epiphany when she reveals that all she does is "work and eat". Which is, of course, what Watanabe thought was the whole problem to begin with. The difference in this girl, he discovers, is that she finds value in the work that she does.
The extended third act where the protagonist's wake is intercut with scenes from the last few months of his life, and the various attitudes and shifts in tone that take place among the bureaucrats in attendance, climaxing with a pledge by all to live up to the excellent example set by Watanabe is executed with precision. The next move by Kurosawa, showing these same bureaucrats months later entrenched in the same dreary, ineffectual business as they were before, is harrowing and depicts the absolutely unavoidable magnetism of bureaucracy for inefficiency and impotence.
Luckily the example of Watanabe himself saves the film for utter darkness, offering a luminous example that we could emulate, even though the bureaucrats in the story were unable to do so.