Reviews: Ikiru

One of my favorite movies ever

I would say Ikiru is easily required viewing for any real film buff, even those who typically avoid old films. Sure, it's got a lot of the qualities of old movies that turn away modern viewers (it's slow and not much really happens, the acting can be overwrought), but like many Japanese movies, after a few hours of bored viewing you might find yourself overcome with emotion.

This is basically the Japanese counterpart to Its A Wonderful Life: on the verge of death, a lifelong gray bureaucrat starts to wonder whether he had accomplished anything worthwhile. Realizing that he's wasted his life pushing papers and keeping the cogs of muncipal administration churning, he sinks into despair and tries anything to enjoy himself in his last months: parties, booze, cute girls. He is portrayed by Takashi Shimura as a classic Woobie, his expression usually pitiful and forlorn. Some might feel sorry for him, some might get exasperated with his constant "Woe is me" act. I was somewhere in the middle, though mostly sympathetic because finding out you have only six months to live would make anyone lost.

The crucial part of this movie is the wake sequence. Yes, it's long, it's slow, it's very dialogue-heavy, there's a lot of drink-fueled overacting, but you still have to see it for the full effect. Gradually we come to see how Watanabe finally found meaning in his life, in some small measure, before he passed away. More profoundly, we see how bucking the system is worthwhile if it means people in need can be helped. While not a wholly sympathetic figure, we see that Watanabe was profoundly dissatisfied with his life and tried to change things, to make a difference, before it was all over.

All this is very emotional, but then at the end comes the clincher - the famous swing scene which might not mean much just watched on You Tube or wherever but, in context, is easily one of cinema's biggest Tear Jerker s. In general we like big stories, epics, grand dramas, stuff that really matters. Ikiru is a masterpiece about quiet triumphs by unassuming people that, in my opinion, overshadows Kurosawa's Jidaigeki in its staying power.