Ed note: For the next several weeks, composer and film aficionado Lewis Saul has agreed to supply us with in-depth commentary about the films of Akira Kurosawa, now showing in an extended festival at the Film Forum. Even if you're unable to stop by the Forum, we think Lew's insights will deepen your appreciation of these important movies.Ikiru (To Live) 
PLAYING January 21st at The Film Forum
This is Kurosawa's 13th film.A man, Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is diagnosed with stomach cancer. He decides to make the best of the time he has left by doing something meaningful.
It is hard to pin down great art. Many people would proclaim that Shichinin no samurai (The Seven Samurai)  is the greatest Kurosawa film; others might pick this one ~ the two films are as different as can be. Ikiru makes a lot of Top-10 lists!
I haven't spoken too much about Kurosawa's writing process up until now. Kurosawa and his writers (in this case veteran Shinobu Hashimoto, who was joined by newcomer Hideo Oguni) would check into their favorite ryokan (inn, usually by a hot springs) and work all day and drink all night until they were done!
Oguni quoted in Galbraith: "Kurosawa said he wanted more than mere advice. He wanted to use Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich as its basis and asked me to write with him ... when I agreed to do it, he took me to Hakkone in the middle of winter ... why he brought me to such a cold place, I'll never understand. My gloves were frozen solid in the bathroom." [p. 156]
And here's the kicker: for all of Kurosawa's genius, if not for Oguni's suggestions, Ikiru might have been just another mediocre film. Check it out:
Hashimoto: "Oguni was late getting to the ryokan, so Mr. Kurosawa and I started writing without him. We finished almost 30 to 40 pages, and when he arrived, he read what we had written and said, 'No, this is no good.' Mr. Kurosawa got really mad. 'Why!? Why isn't it any good?' he demanded. Oguni told him, and Kurosawa got so angry he grabbed the work he had done and ripped it to shreds, yelling at Oguni, saying 'It's your fault because you're late!' Oguni was older than Kurosawa and a very famous, skilled writer. Since he was older, he was able to say whatever he wanted to Mr. Kurosawa. One day during drinks after work Oguni told Kurosawa, 'For the artist, reputation is the punishment given by God.' ... the way Kurosawa thought of the script was very simple: a man has 75 days left to live. That's the theme, and he thought in terms of that one thread ... I wrote the first draft and had Watanabe die at the end. When Mr. Oguni came and joined us at the ryokan we changed the screenplay's structure so that he died in the middle." [pp. 156]
This film is so artfully put together, it is probably best just to start at the beginning and point my little bullet-fingers at the cooler moments in a film jam-packed with awesomeness.
- Toshirô Mifune is in every Kurosawa film from 1948 to 1965. Except this one. He made 16 films in the years 1951-52. And 16 total films with Kurosawa!
- Shimura carries this film with an unforgettable, magnificent performance.
- I love it when Kurosawa makes us figure things out on our own with only clues from the film to go on ... we know Watanabe has been working at City Hall for 30 years (started 1921), but when he needs to clean his stamp, he tears off the front page of a 1930 manual (which looks like it has never been touched) entitled "How to Increase Efficiency." Therefore, he had been working for nine years when he deep-sixed the efficiency suggestions!
- The women are shuffled along from Public Affairs to: 1) Engineering Section; 2) Parks; 3) Health; 4) Sanitation; 5) Environmental Sanitation; 6) Dept. of Prevention; 7) Infectious Diseases; 8) Division of Pest Control; 9) Sewage; 10) Roads; 11) City Planning; 12) Ward Reorganization; 13) Fire; 14) Education/Child Welfare Committee; 15) Ward Representative; and 16) City Councilman who promises to introduce them to the Deputy Mayor! Ultimately, they end up back at "Public Affairs" where they freak out. Watanabe is out sick (for the first time in 30 years!), so Sakai (Haruo Tanaka) tells them to "put it in writing."
- Watanabe is one month short of a perfect 30-year attendance record when he gets sick!
- The many dissolves, along with a persistent, droning quarter-note pulse, accentuates Watanabe's distress in the hospital scene. The patient who sits next to him (Atsushi Watanabe, eight AK films) tells him exactly how the doctor will lie about his true condition.
- Right after this, as Watanabe leaves the hospital, Kurosawa bleeds all of the sound from the soundtrack. He is in his own world after getting this distressing news, and is almost hit by a truck -- as the sound suddenly bursts forth after seconds of silence.
- Notice the incredible wipe left which follows the direction of a moving truck...
- We approach the house. An American pop song is playing on the soundtrack. Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) and his wife, Kazue (Kyoko Seki, in her only film -- ever!) are talking about Watanabe in the dark, but when they turn on the light, he is sitting there. Kazue complains about Japanese houses and their lack of privacy.
- Watanabe would like nothing better than to talk to his married son, but communication is scrambled. Instead, he bathes his memory in a series of flashbacks:
- 1) His wife's funeral (little Mitsuo touches his father when he thinks his mother is disappearing when the funeral procession makes a turn);
- 2) A baseball game (Mitsuo has yelled down to his father to "lock up" the house -- the door is locked with the aid of a baseball bat!) where Mitsuo was thrown out trying to steal second base;
- 3) Riding the elevator down to the surgical ward where Mitsuo will have his appendix out. Dad cannot stay -- he has to go back to work!
- 4) Mitsuo on the train off to war...
- The "nightlife" scene begins: a beautiful establishing shot of some railroad tracks with trucks rumbling by and blinking neon signs. We see a black dog outside a bar, and an inebriated writer (Yûnosuke Itô) inside the bar. The dog enters when the bar owner leaves to deliver the writer's papers to his publisher.
- But the writer is upset because the pharmacy is closed and he needs sleeping pills. Watanabe offers some of his own, which he was going to throw out. After hearing his story, the writer eyes the pills suspiciously, thinking that Watanabe might be contemplating suicide.
- Set detail: for some reason, the sake bottle seems really beautiful to me. The black & white image seems to shine and a little light reflects off the bottle...
- The writer has this terrific speech:
- "I'm telling you, it's our human duty to enjoy life. Wasting it, you desecrate God's great gift. We've got to be greedy about living. We learned that greed is a vice, but that's old. Greed is a virtue!"
- The writer tells Watanabe that he will be his "good Mephistopheles" for the night -- one who seeks no reward!
- The pachinko scene features some beautiful orchestration with a glockenspiel (bells) accompanying the bouncing balls. It is also fascinating to see what a pachinko machine looked like in the early 50's as opposed to today's modern machines!
- At a swinging café, Watanabe is shocked by the blaring trombones, whose slides almost hit him!
- His hat is stolen. He buys a new one. A French song is playing.
- When a counter girl tries to check his hat, he thinks she's trying to steal it! Wonderful mirror shot here, as the camera pushes in to a lovely three-shot, as Watanabe awakens from his drunken state...
- A beautifully understated crane shot as the two climb some stairs in yet another café. Watanabe stares in disbelief at the couples who are close-dancing -- he's probably never seen such a thing before!
- The piano player (Toshiyuki Ichimura) is fantastic! Great use of mirror image. The dancer has "borrowed" Watanabe's hat and he is trying to get it back while she dances! The piano player plays a terrific blues -- even after he falls on the floor, he keeps playing...
- Watanabe requests "Life is Brief." The actual title is Gondola no Uta (The Gondola Song) . It is a song about women and how they should find love before their time has run out.
- As the song begins, several couples move to the dance floor, with smiling expressions that suddenly turn serious as we hear Watanabe begin to sing.
- Shimura is off by one or more beats in several different places in the song.
- The striptease is amazing, mainly due to Shimura's reactions! The writer's description of the dancer is provocative!
- Cars, madness, wipes -- and another dance hall with Cuban or Latin music, as the two men dance with different girls. Watanabe looks completely overwhelmed with new experience, while the writer is drunk and nearly asleep. His dancing partner pinches his cheek to wake him up!
- In a car with the girls (Watanabe's date pulls off her fake eyelashes!); after he throws up, the girls sing "C'mon a my house, c'mon a my house..."
- FADE TO BLACK
- We met her at the beginning of the film when she made that terrific joke about the guy who never missed work until he did and was told that he wasn't needed anymore! Now, in concert with Shimura, she takes over the film: the "office girl" -- Toyo Odagiri (Miki Odagiri).
- He completes her paperwork (even though it was the "wrong form") and notices that her stockings are full of holes. In a moment of excitement, she touches his hand, and just at that moment the maid opens the shōji, opening up a continual stream of misunderstandings...
- Notice how she counts on her fingers to figure the 30 years she has read on his Certificate...
- He buys her new stockings and she nearly gets run over by a bus as she skips out of the "Western clothing store" in sheer delight!
- "The holes in my stockings don't bother your legs," she says suspiciously -- but then immediately apologizes as she realizes that Watanabe is not pursuing her sexually...
- In the tea-house, the two become closer as she confides in Watanabe about her nicknames for all the office dorks: Sakai is "Fish Kite"; Ono (Kamatari Fujiwara) is "Sea Slug"; Ohara (Bokuzen Hidari) is "Ditch-Cover-Board"; Noguchi (Minoru Chiaki) is "Flypaper"; Saito (Minosuke Yamada) is "Daily Special"; Kimura (Shinichi Himori) is "Rice Noodles"; and of course Watanabe is "The Mummy."
- They go skating; they go out to eat -- and she always eats his order, too (he has no appetite). When he badmouths his son, she rebukes him, even as the camera shows us her brand new stockings which she lovingly touches.
- At home, as the son reads the newspaper, the miscommunication and non-understanding continue...
- FADE TO BLACK
- His empty desk. The narrator explains while the office men gossip away.
- Watanabe visits Toyo at her new job, making toy bunnies. She is getting annoyed at his constant nagging, but agrees to meet one last time.
- This final scene with Toyo is terrific. While a birthday party takes place across the way, Watanabe tries to tell her about his prognosis. He sputters and stumbles and mumbles and even the non-Japanese audience will be thinking what she finally says: "why can't you spit it out already!" He finally comes out with it (on the soundtrack: a march).
- What is so special about her life? Her statement: "Making these bunnies, I feel like I'm playing with every baby in Japan" seems to stir something in Watanabe. The music gets louder. Suddenly his eyes light up. He smiles a weird smile and she reacts with a sort of horror. "No, it's not too late! It's not impossible!" as he grabs the bunny. "Happy Birthday" as the girl goes up the stairs as Watanabe descends...
- FADE TO BLACK
- Watanabe returns to work. He picks up the top sheet of paper from his inbox which reads, "PETITION BY THE WOMEN'S COMMITTEE TO REPAIR AND FILL IN CESSPOOL." He hands it to Ono, who tries to pass it off to Engineering, but of course Watanabe will have none of that anymore!
- Note that "Happy Birthday" is playing (re-orchestrated) in the background -- it is literally Watanabe's "date of birth"!
- Soon a siren takes over as Watanabe, Ono and Saito hustle out of the building to inspect the site. As the door swings shut behind him, the narrator informs us that he died five months later. The time is 1:32:40; there are 50 minutes left in the film...
- And magnificent minutes they are -- first, a bit of necessary exposition concerning the snub to Watanabe and the political overtones to the questions of the press.
- When the Deputy Mayor (Nobuo Nakamura) returns to the wake, all is stony silence. Lots of doublespeak, as he alternately gives Watanabe credit for his work on the park and then states precisely the opposite.
- The women enter, crying. Here is the real testimony to Watanabe's devotion to the playground project!
- An amazing quadruple axial cut on Watanabe's wake photograph!
- After the "big shots" leave, the group gets quite a bit more comfortable. Watch the steady progression of sake consumption by the group -- although Ohara (Hidari) seems completely smashed from the very start...
- There are 14 flashbacks in the wake scene.
- 1) Ono recalls the day Watanabe returned and saying, "... not if we put our minds to it" and rushing out to the site.
- 2) It is raining.
- 3) Watanabe is humbling himself before the Park Department employee.
- 4) And then the Park Section Chief (Toranosuke Ogawa).
- 5) The Chief of Engineering tries to avoid Watanabe.
- 6) Who is bowing even to peons.
- 7) The "shocker" which is at first shown to simply be Watanabe knocking on the Deputy Mayor's door.
- 8) He bows to the Deputy Mayor who quickly dismisses him and returns to his friends, discussing the recent decline in the quality of geisha girls. Ono bows and turns to leave, but Watanabe remains bowing towards the Deputy Mayor's empty desk.
- 9) Quick shot in hallway by the Deputy Mayor's office.
- 10) Watanabe at the construction site, nearly run over by a tractor.
- 11) The Yakuza scene. Daisuke Katô is brilliant as the scarred yakuza who makes that threatening yelling sound that most yakuza make -- and Watanabe just smiles! Even more disarming, however, is his reaction to the stare from the yakuza boss (Seiji Miyaguchi).
- 12) Ono is now convinced that Watanabe knew he had cancer. He recalls how Administration refused to grant the money and how he had asked Watanabe why this didn't make him angrier! "I can't afford to hate people, I haven't got that kind of time," he responded!
- 13) "In the past 30 years, I'd all but forgotten sunsets" (somewhat reminiscent of the female pickpocket [Noriko Sengoku] in Stray Dog, on the roof of the shack with Murakami).
- 14) Watanabe on the swings. Notice the gorgeous, slow, methodical camera movement and finally a dissolve to the wake photograph.
- Great line from a frustrated bureaucrat: "In order to clean up a garbage can somewhere, you need a garbage can full of paperwork."
- Great shot of three items from Watanabe's life: the Certificate, the alarm clock, and the bunny.
- Kimura -- the only one not to get drunk -- is moved by what Watanabe did. After the final FADE TO BLACK, Ono (the new Chief) stamps a complaint, passing it off to another department. Kimura rises, as if in objection, and then sits back down. After all, it is useless. He sits behind a massive stack of papers and as the camera pans downward, he disappears behind it!
- A wipe, and Kimura is looking down at the beautiful new playground. Kids are playing and having fun as their mothers call them home for dinner. Kimura walks out of frame. THE END.
- There are 40 wipes in this film, all horizontal (27 left, 13 right), almost all from the first half of the film.