Ikiru: Criterion Collection

January 28, 2012 10 Min Read

Review by: Fusion3600

Plot: What’s it about?

Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) has worked in a city office for his entire life, which some people would call dedication. Watanabe has done his work day in and day out, going through the motions and doing as he was told. It takes dedication to keep up those motions, to get out of bed, come into work, and complete your tasks, especially to do so without exception for an extensive period of time. And he has done so for over three decades, which means he should have a sense of accomplishment in his work. His office deals with complaints from local citizens, which he reads, analyzes, and passes over to the proper hands. This seems like a decent position, as he has a chance to see what is on the minds of the citizens, as well as have some kind of hand in improving lives, even if only in small doses. Watanabe is not a cruel man, quite the opposite, but he hasn’t used his post in the ways he could have. He has simply done what he was asked to do, reading the letters and stamping them with his mark, to make it known he had seen them. When he is diagnosed with stomach cancer, it dawns on him more than ever that his life has been wasted, as his job has been his focus and it was misused. But with time running out on his life, Watanabe plans to make one final effort, as well as find the meaning in his life.

I’ve seen countless movies that immerse the audience in a world of fantasy, whether that world is a place of mystical realms or just our world with some helpful changes. The Lord of the Rings and Pretty Woman seem like distant relatives in the world of cinema, but both use fantasy to dazzle the viewer. But sometimes we tire of that fantasy and want a more realistic experience, as we all know real life can often be much more interesting than even the wildest fantasies. Such is the case with Ikiru, a simple tale told in a simple fashion, but one which resonates and refuses to leave your mind once you’ve seen it unfold. The premise is not a unique one now, as countless films have looked at people who feel like they’ve wasted their lives, devoting more time to thankless careers than more important priorities. But Ikiru explored this premise long before movies like American Beauty and did so with greater skill, at least in my opinion. The pace is slow, but it needs to be in order to let things happen at a natural slide. Kurosawa’s direction is superb, as he relies on the material’s emotional content, but never forces it. If he would have, the emotion would have been fabricated, instead of natural as it is here. I cannot recommend Ikiru enough, as the movie is wonderful and Criterion’s two disc edition is an excellent release.

If you sit down to discuss cinema with movie lovers of any kind, be they rabid film buffs or just casual viewers, some names will always be mentioned. So no matter what the topic of discussion is or what kind of movies are being discussed, if the conversation kicks over to great filmmakers, a few names are constant guests. One such name is Akira Kurosawa, one of the true masters of cinema and a man who is destined to be immortal thanks to his pictures. His resume is not as explored by all film buffs as some directors however, which is a real shame. His famous movies turn up as staples in film classes across the world, as examples of how good a film can be, with all the elements well handled and executed. But Kurosawa also helmed numerous lesser known works, ones that more than hold their own, without question. I wouldn’t call Ikiru an unknown movie by any means, but it gets less press than it should. But now is the time to revisit this classic once more, or perhaps see it for the first time, if you’ve never taken the time. Kurosawa’s masterful direction is at his peak in Ikiru and in truth, it could be called his finest piece. That can be debated, of course, but even so, Ikiru is a true masterpiece and worthy of a higher profile. Other films by Kurosawa include Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, The Bad Sleep Well, Rashomon, Sanjuro, High and Low, and Dersu Uzala.

Video: How does it look?

Ikiru is presented in full frame, as intended. As usual, Criterion has used an extensive digital restoration to improve the visual presentation. So thousands of nicks, pops, and marks were removed in the process, which of course, means the print looks better than we could have expected. A few defects remain behind, but when the image is so clean and crisp, on a film that is over five decades old, I see no reason to be to hyper critical. The image is a tad worn at times, but looks brighter and more refined than I ever anticipated. The visuals have solid depth throughout, thanks to sharp details and a smooth overall presence. In short, this is a terrific presentation and without question, the best home video edition out there.

Audio: How does it sound?

The original Japanese soundtrack is preserved here, via a mono option that has been restored to enhance the experience. In other words, although the material is over fifty years old, you won’t hear a lot of age related defects. A lot of older soundtracks are plagued with pops, distortion, and harshness, not to mention drop outs. But thanks to Criterion’s careful work, the material here isn’t hindered by such woes. A few minor issues emerge at times, but never anything serious. The music is well done in this mix, as it has more life than expected, while sound effects remain natural and low key in scope. I heard no troubles with dialogue either, as vocals were consistently clean and crisp, no worries there. This disc also includes new and improved, optional English subtitles, in case you aren’t fluent in Japanese.

Supplements: What are the extras?

An audio commentary track can be found on the first disc, one with insight from Stephen Prince, an author who wrote a book on Kurosawa’s films. As expected, Prince is well researched and has a lot of comments to pass on, from minute details about the production to more broad strokes on Kurosawa’s direction. The passion is obvious in Prince’s comments, which makes for a lively and informative session. The second disc includes two substantial documentary features, both of which are worth a look. The first is A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies, which runs over eighty minutes in duration. This is a series of interviews with Kurosawa, who is open and candid, which means a wealth of insight is on showcase. You want to know the secrets of one of cinema’s greatest masters? If so, then look no further, as this is one of the better supplemental documentaries you’ll find. The other piece is focused more Ikiru itself, as it comes from a series of documentaries, each devoted to a specific Kurosawa picture. Kurosawa returns in this forty minute piece, with additional interviews with several cast & crew members, including writer Hideo Oguni and star Takashi Shimura. I was quite pleased with this featurette also, as it has a lot of great interviews and minimal filler, which is good, since filler is so common in most featurettes. This disc also includes the film’s original theatrical trailer.

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