Combustible Celluloid
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With: Takashi Shimura, Shinichi Himori, Haruo Tanaka, Minoru Chiaki, Bokuzen Hidari, Miki Odagiri, Kamatari Fujiwara, Nobuo Nakamura, Yunosuke Ito
Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
MPAA Rating: NR
Language: Japanese, with English subtitles
Running Time: 143
Date: 10/09/1952

Ikiru (1952)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Learning to Live

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

In the 1940s, America did not see Japanese films, for the very good reason that Japan was our enemy during WWII. But a few years later, in the early 1950s, an influx of masterworks began to trickle in, including Kenji Mizoguchi's Ugetsu, Yasujiro Ozu's Tokyo Story, and Kurosawa's Rashomon and Seven Samurai. Kurosawa was considered the most "Western" of these filmmakers, and his two films struck a nerve with Americans. The samurai must have seemed like cowboys, but in a new and exotic setting, not to mention the gorgeous and fluid visuals of those films, which brought action to a new level of art.

Yet Kurosawa made another film in-between Rashomon and Seven Samurai, called Ikiru (1952). It did not fit in with the samurai films, it was not Western-looking at all, and it was promptly ignored. It shows Kurosawa at his most gentle, telling the story of a bureaucrat, Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), who has lived an empty life in service of his paper-pushing job. When he discovers he has cancer, he decides to do something meaningful for a change. Of course, it sounds dreary, but it's as beautifully simple and as dignified as any film could possibly be. The climactic image of the man swinging on a children's swing can wrench tears from a stone. By the way, the star of this film, Takashi Shimura, also plays major roles in both Rashomon and Seven Samurai, and yet still remains fairly unknown.

The Criterion Collection's magnificent 2-disc DVD set, released in 2004, contains a new transfer of the film, mastered from a new 35mm positive print. It's still a little jumpy, but marvelous nonetheless. Kurosawa's shades and compositions come through with stunning clarity. Author Stephen Prince gives us an informative, but overly rehearsed commentary track. Disc two comes with two documentaries, the 41-minute Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create and the 81-minute A Message from Akira Kurosawa. (But where is Alex Cox's documentary on Kurosawa?) Otherwise, Donald Richie contributes a liner notes essay and the disc comes with a theatrical trailer.

In 2015, Criterion released a Blu-ray upgrade, with a new 4K digital transfer and an uncompressed monaural soundtrack; it seems much improved. The extras appear to be mostly the same as the DVD release, but with a movie this essential, most Kurosawa fans will want to trade up.

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