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review added: 1/16/04

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Ikiru
1952 (2003) - The Criterion Collection

review by Todd Doogan of The Digital Bits

Ikiru (Criterion) Film Rating: A+

Disc Ratings (Video/Audio/Extras): B+/B+/A+

Specs and Features
Disc One: The Film
143 mins, NR, full frame (1.33:1), dual-disc keep case packaging, single-sided, RSDL dual-layered (layer switch at ??), audio commentary with Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince, liner notes by Donald Richie, theatrical trailer, color bars, film-themed menu screen with sound, scene access (24 chapters), languages: Japanese (DD mono), subtitles: English


Disc Two: Supplemental Material
A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies documentary, Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create - Ikiru documentary, film-themed menu screen with sound, languages: Japanese (DD mono), subtitles: English


True emotion in film is a very hard thing to pull off. We, as modern day filmgoers, are way too savvy to be manipulated into something like crying, screaming or cheering just because some filmmaker wants us to. But when it does happen, we forgive the film any faults it may have had and fall head over heels in love. It's with great pleasure, then, that I introduce you to Criterion's release of Ikiru - one of my all-time, favorite films, and my favorite Kurosawa film sans samurai.

Ikiru follows the short adventure towards death of Kanji Watanabe (played masterfully by Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura). Watanabe is a civil service bureaucrat, who learns he has inoperable stomach cancer and only has about six months to live. The shame of this is in what we learn about Watanabe's lackluster life. Watanabe, like so many of the classic Japanese "salary men," has lived his life through his job, choosing to focus on work instead of family. In doing this, he's sacrificed himself, neglecting his own needs as well as those of his young son. All these years later, Watanabe has grown into a supervisory position for the City. He lives with his disaffected son and daughter-in-law (his wife died when his son was very young and he, atypically for the Japanese, chose not to re-marry). Now, all he has to show for his life is a citation on his wall.

That's about where we pick up with him. It doesn't sound like much of an uplifting tale, does it? But Ikiru isn't about the mistakes Watanabe has made. It's about what he does to repair his life in the short amount of time he has left. When faced with the end of his life, Watanabe realizes that he's made some big mistakes that no one, not even he, can rectify. What is broken will remain broken, and that's that. But seeing something that he can actually make right, he takes the opportunity and runs with it. Unfolding in a Citizen Kane-esque mystery, we learn exactly what that something is... and how it affects the people around him, including his son and his wife.

Ikiru isn't like any other movies you've seen. Kurosawa puts us in a very voyeuristic position, keeping us as arm's length from Watanabe and even going as far as incorporating an unsympathetic narrator who, right off the bat, tells us he's going to die. It works incredibly well because, in the end, we become reinvested in his character by learning the same things about him that the others do in the film. That gives us a chance to benefit from the life lessons just as much as the characters do. Ikiru is just an incredible film, full of hope, reality and some really great performances.

There are a few things you should know about Japan in the 1950s going into the film as Westerners, in order to fully understand the scope of the film.

First, the medical world of Japan, even up to about a decade ago, didn't discuss probability of death with a patient. The doctors believed it added undue stress on the situation and that it was rude. The patients usually knew because of code words being used, but the frankness we have in the West doesn't exist in this film.

Second, stomach cancer, even today, is as common in Japan as heart disease is in America. Instead of being fat and lazy, the Japanese are stressy.

Third, an expensive flashy hat for a Japanese businessman would be like a 50-year-old American businessman buying a bad-ass leather coat and wearing it everywhere. It WILL draw eyes and questions. So, as you see mention to "the hat" in the film, know that it was a very uncommon item for someone to purchase out of nowhere.

Finally, the code of business in Japan at this time was A) be at work on time, B) don't be out on leave (sick or holiday) and finally, C) do only what you're expected to do to get by and nothing more. Follow these rules and you'll be with the company forever.

As you see reference to these points, just remember that they're important. As much as the film says about "living life to the best," it's also a snapshot of the Japan in post-war times: the Western influence of the young seen in Watanabe's son, the bureaucratic system, the rising "salary man" life-style and the idea that one man can make a difference (but not everyone will follow his example).

Criterion has done a bang up job with Ikiru. This new DVD looks, leaps and bounds, better than their laserdisc edition (which was always one of their signature pieces). The transfer is in the original full frame aspect ratio. It's nice, clean and clear, with good detail and hard blacks. There is some irreparable source damage throughout the film, but as we always say about international films this old, it's to be expected. The sound is a solid Japanese mono track, with little distortion and nice balance for mono.

These Criterion DVDs of Kurosawa films really need to be looked at as a whole. Each and everyone one of them helps illuminate the world of Kurosawa, and this one is no exception. Disc One of this set features audio commentary from Stephen Price, who is always great on his commentary tracks. He's joyful about the subject and offers lots of detail that fans will gobble up. Disc One also features a nice trailer for the film and Criterion's color bar courtesy.

Disc Two only has two extras, but they're substantial and most welcome. First is the documentary A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies. Produced in 2000 with the assistance of Kurosawa's family, this documentary looks at the way the director worked. From his thoughts on adapting stories, to his storyboard process (each was hand drawn with artistic flourish), to how he worked with actors and crew alike -- it's a wonderful look into the world of Kurosawa. Utilizing behind-the-scene footage from Madadayo and Rhapsody in August, we get a great, insider's view of the director. The other extra is an episode of Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, which is a series of documentaries produced by Toho. This one features the making of Ikiru, highlighted by clips from the film combined with interviews from surviving cast and crew members. It also provides a short biographical look at actor Takashi Shimura. Together, these two features run over two hours, and make this set a must have for film fans.

Ikiru is, without doubt, a great film. In fact, it could easily be ranked as one of the greatest ever made. This DVD is one that we here at The Bits have wanted a very long time to have in our hands. If you've never seen Ikiru, you owe it to yourself to give this disc a spin. Don't hesitate - just pick this one up today.

Todd Doogan
todddoogan@thedigitalbits.com


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