Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni
Starring Takashi Shimura, Shinichi Himori, Haruo Tanaka, Minoru Chiaki, Bokuzen Hidari, Kamatari Fujiwara
Akira Kurosawa is known as Japan’s greatest film director,* known primarily for action-filled films like Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Roshomon, and Ran. But early in his career, he showed a different side with Ikiru.
It’s the story about Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), a love-level government official toiling at a dull and boring job. His life is empty, his wife dead, his son not all that interested in him. When he discovers he has stomach cancer and only a year to live, he is lost in depression. When he finds a former co-worker, who is now on her own and enjoying life, he realizes he has to break out of his depression and decides to take on small but difficult project: to convert a vacant lot into a children’s playground.
The movie has an important message: that one man can make a difference, even in a small way. Much of the film shows Watanabe becoming more and more despondent, until he take on his project with the clock running out for him.
Ikiru is often considered one of Kurosawa’s best, but it is not well-known in the US. It was overshadowed by Roshomon and his next film, The Seven Samurai, and I suspect its long downbeat section turned off audiences who didn’t stick it out to the end. It also didn’t have Kurosawa’s best-known actor, Toshiro Mifume. So with an unknown cast, Kurosawa’s reputation was not enough for it to be noticed in the US.
*Other claimants are Yashijiro Ozu and, if you consider animation (and I do), Hayao Miyazaki