To Live
January 29, 2008 8:17 PM   Subscribe

American audiences remember Akira Kurosawa as the genius of the samurai epic, a past master who used the form both to revise and revive Western classics - Shakespeare with Ran and Throne of Blood, Dostoevsky with Red Beard and The Idiot, Gorky with The Lower Depths - and to give splendid and ultimately immortal life to new archetypes, as in The Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo. But Kurosawa also made films of his own time. His masterpiece, in fact, was the quiet story of a gray Japanese bureaucrat dying in post-war Tokyo, and of his attempt to do something of lasting good before he leaves. The film is Ikiru ("To Live"; 1952).

Bonus Kurosawa: Stray Dog.
posted by Iridic (45 comments total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Mainly I remember him from Ikiru. I had no idea he did samurai flicks!

(Thanks for the link, I really love that film.)
posted by sleepy pete at 8:34 PM on January 29, 2008

Another worthwhile Kurosawa film made of his own time: Dodesukaden.
posted by 3.2.3 at 8:37 PM on January 29, 2008

I haven't seen it - but I've been meaning to brush up on my Kurosawa, I'm embarrassingly behind. Thanks for the tip.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 8:47 PM on January 29, 2008

Although I love his samurai epics, High and Low is also a favorite.
posted by cazoo at 8:50 PM on January 29, 2008

Ikiru is the one Kurosawa film that I couldn't stand when I watched it—which is weird because I remember being excited to see it and was in my Japanese cinema phase. I think it was because I had been watching a bit of Yasujiro Ozu at the time, which makes Ikiru feel about as subtle as a hammer. I probably should give it another chance, though.

High and Low, however, is fucking awesome.
posted by Weebot at 9:06 PM on January 29, 2008

Aargh. Unfortunately, it seems that most of the best writing about the film is behind a JSTOR wall, but *SPOILERS IN LINK* here's a bit about it from the Senses of Cinema site (linked above). Don't go reading that link if you haven't seen it.

For those who haven't seen it, you really should. It's a sort of The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit with more beauty and humanity than that novel/film could ever muster.
posted by sleepy pete at 9:08 PM on January 29, 2008

High and Low here too. Love that film.

little known fact -- though shot in black and white, Kurosawa paid to have the "pink smoke" scene tinted with an early color process. Many transfers may not include it, but I think the Criterion does. So don't turn down your color, or you will miss it.
posted by vronsky at 9:20 PM on January 29, 2008

Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress and The Lower Depths are my faves.
posted by rmmcclay at 9:31 PM on January 29, 2008

All of his films are recommended viewing - most of them appear in the IMDb Top 250 list. Most I have in my collection as they all stand the test of the time and suit repeat viewing...
posted by seriocomic at 9:34 PM on January 29, 2008

Eh, there's always been a Ikiru camp, claiming it's his best, but that's not a consensus. I don't mean one of the others is better, I mean Ikiru isn't that good. I wouldn't give it that "masterpiece" moniker, anyway.
posted by Rich Smorgasbord at 9:34 PM on January 29, 2008

I do have a soft spot in my heart for the ending of Ikiru, but the first two-thirds of the movie is nearly ruined by Takashi Shimura's Jake Gyllenhaal-esque "I just shat in my pants" mopey face.
posted by alidarbac at 9:40 PM on January 29, 2008

Kurosawa is the best. I've probably seen a dozen or so, although not Ikiru. My favorite is Kagemusha.
posted by neuron at 9:49 PM on January 29, 2008

Great, great movie.
posted by painquale at 9:59 PM on January 29, 2008

Clearly I've missed out by not seeing High and Low. From the sound of it, it may overtake Ikiru in my favor.

And yet that would be hard to do. Ikiru is atypical Kurosawa, I know - it lacks high spectacle and maniacally perfect production, to say nothing of the absence of Toshiro Mifune's burning eyes. But its sincerity and its urgency - and the infinite art expended in the service of that urgency - have always affected me. Here's Donald Richie:

“Sometimes I think of my death,” Kurosawa has written: “I think of ceasing to be . . . and it is from these thoughts that Ikiru came.”

Ikiru is Kurosawa playing for keeps. You know it from the first shot of that x-ray. You know it from the last shot of Watanabe in the snow, content unto death. And you know it from the master class on photography in between.

In short, it's the work of a man conscious of his own mortality and exerting all his experience to make something good happen.
posted by Iridic at 10:03 PM on January 29, 2008

Just reading the story of Ikiru in Eberts review is rather moving in a sentimental way.
posted by jouke at 10:08 PM on January 29, 2008

If you need a change of pace, of course, there's always Toshiro Mifune and hundreds of real arrows...
posted by Iridic at 10:11 PM on January 29, 2008

Another High and Low fan here; it's simply amazing. I was too young to appreciate Ikiru when I saw it, so now I desperately want to see it again. And as for the samurai flicks, I'm a total sucker for Throne of Blood. Jesus, that final scene! (on preview: jinx, Iridic!)
posted by scody at 10:13 PM on January 29, 2008

Ikiru is a phenomenal accomplishment. For me, it's AK highest achievement. There's a quiet unearthly power to it that is just so moving. Shimura should've gotten a best actor Oscar every year for the next decade.

Anyhow, High and Low is great fun.

For those who like the period films, I recommend Sanshô dayû (Aka Sansho the Baliff) and Ugetsu, both by Kenji Mizoguichi, a contemporary of the Kurosawa. Can't say enough about him either...
posted by Skygazer at 10:17 PM on January 29, 2008

I went to see Ikiru a few years back at a local film festival out of a love of Kurosawa's samurai films, without having any real idea what the movie was about. I ended up being surprised not just at the modern setting and ruminations on mortality, but at the power the film had for me emotionally. It plays with your expectations by being very upfront about the characters condition, and then extending beyond the point where a story will generally wrap things up succinctly. It's delightful, charming, and bittersweet all at once. I'd have to say that it is everything that people seem to like about American Beauty, only done better and with more substance and art to back it up.
posted by CheshireCat at 10:27 PM on January 29, 2008

Kurosawa paid to have the "pink smoke" scene tinted with an early color process.

Yeah, it was coloured by hand. The Criterion edition includes this.
posted by Wolof at 10:28 PM on January 29, 2008

The scene in Red Beard with the women wailing into the well to save the dying child, to call his spirit back from the underworld, destroys me every time.
posted by vronsky at 10:46 PM on January 29, 2008

I recall reading at one point that an American remake of Ikiru was in the works as a Tom Hanks vehicle. Anyone know if that's still the case?
posted by Uncle Ira at 12:05 AM on January 30, 2008

I recall reading at one point that an American remake of Ikiru was in the works as a Tom Hanks vehicle. Anyone know if that's still the case?

Whatever plans Hanks made apparently never got past the planning stage; he has 3 movies in production now, and none of them resemble Ikiru. Perhaps he realized that he'd already made two movies about men imbued with new purposes through terminal illness and decided that a direct remake would be redundant.

Rob Reiner's recent Bucket List bears no small resemblance to Ikiru. It's perhaps a little unfair to compare two movies of such varying ambition, but that hasn't stopped our nation's bloggers.
posted by Iridic at 12:38 AM on January 30, 2008

That film just took all the last illusions I had
posted by zouhair at 2:25 AM on January 30, 2008

Iridic, they pulled a bunch of the arrows with strings. Sorry.
posted by zengargoyle at 2:39 AM on January 30, 2008

I'll go to the mat for Yojimbo, the best existentialist comedy ever made.
posted by Lentrohamsanin at 3:25 AM on January 30, 2008

While Kurosawa is great, The Idiot was really badly scripted and cut, to the point of being incomprehensible. Seeing Dodesukaden is worthwhile for the crazy theatrical colors, but it's a bit awkwardly filmed. I was pretty into Stray Dog though.
posted by beerbajay at 3:28 AM on January 30, 2008

Lol, American audiences.
posted by fire&wings at 4:42 AM on January 30, 2008

Thanks for this post.

The thing about Kurosawa is that recently, terrible remakes of his works are being produced one after another. Remakes of Ikiru and High and Low were aired on TV last year, and a film version of Tsubaki Sanjuro was released last year as well. The Hidden Fortress and Yojinbo will be released later this year. An actual footage of Kurosawa himself and his film Kagemusha were used in a TV commercial for canned coffee. Until these examples, Kurosawa remakes were unheard of, and apparently the reason is that his son has been selling the rights to remake his father's films because of his own financial difficulties. Since 2010 is the 100th anniversary of Kurosawa's birth, more and more remakes will probably be made until then and there's even rumor of his name being used in other businesses such as pachinko machines! It's so sad, really.
posted by misozaki at 6:08 AM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

For those that want to dive deeper into the samurai genre and the legacy of those films:

Ran is Kurosawa's version of King Lear

Yojimbo was remade as A Fistful of Dollars and later as Last Man Standing

Seven Samurai was remade as The Magnificent Seven

The Hidden Fortress
was influential on George Lucas in his creation of Star Wars
posted by Argyle at 7:17 AM on January 30, 2008

Over time, Dersu Uzala has stayed in my minds eye more strongly than any other Kurosawa film (besides perhaps Rashomon). I don't know if it's his "best", but it's the one I seem to remember the most often. High & Low and Ikiru are both excellent and taught me a lot of about contemporary Japanese culture. Overall, Kurosawa ruined film for me, he basically achieved the best, everything else seems lesser.
posted by stbalbach at 7:58 AM on January 30, 2008

Mainly I remember him from Ikiru. I had no idea he did samurai flicks!

You just blew my mind.

The book Something Like An Autobiography is a very good read about Kurosawa.
posted by P.o.B. at 8:17 AM on January 30, 2008

misozaki, that is interesting Kurosawa is being remade. It is sad, but no doubt these remakes will soon be forgotten.

After my post about Dersu Uzala above I just found this website and it appears the movie is based on actual memoirs, I've ordered a copy and can't wait to read it, apparently the book is better than the movie.
posted by stbalbach at 8:23 AM on January 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

For sheer movie-loving pleasure it's hard to beat Yojimbo. Fistful of Dollars was a moderately decent remake, Last Man Standing was a mediocre remake, but Yojimbo is darn near perfect beginning to end.
posted by waraw at 9:30 AM on January 30, 2008

What a weird post... when I saw what was posted to the front page I thought you were going to take about the recent string of remake / remake rumors, but you didn't mention them at all.

I hear the TV movie remake was very bad, but I haven't seen it myself. I am hoping the Jim Sheridan rumor will fade away like a bad dream.

Ikiru is my favorite foreign film and everyone should see it at least once, if you haven't already. Prepare yourself for Japanese story-telling pace, though. If Ikiru were an American film I think it would have been at least 1 hour shorter.
posted by ducksauce at 1:08 PM on January 30, 2008

yea, kurosawa is ok, but ozu and naruse are incomparable :P [cf. olmi and murnau! (oh and 'people on sunday')] esp if you're a fan of "contemporary" cinema, i.e. that evokes a time...

(btw 'to live' is also prolly my fave zhang yimou movie ;)
posted by kliuless at 2:03 PM on January 30, 2008

Nifty. I’m a Kurosawa fan. I haven’t seen this yet.
Sure the title isn’t “To Blave”? These things can be lost in translation. But there’s nothing better than a Kurosawa film
(except maybe an MLT, where the mutton is nice and lean and the tomato is ripe. They're so perky, I love that)
posted by Smedleyman at 2:38 PM on January 30, 2008

Have fun storming the castle smedleyman.
posted by vronsky at 3:10 PM on January 30, 2008

I have a lot of difficulty choosing a favorite Kurosawa film. Of course Seven Samurai and Ikiru are true masterpieces, but I also have a fondness for Sanjuro, the sequel to Yojimbo. It takes so many different tones with the physical comedy involving the young rebels, Mifune's gruffness and the reversal of praise and abuse, and of course the shock ending, and yet it works.

Stray Dog is a surprisingly powerful early Kurosawa film. Taking the form of a police procedural, it nevertheless presents an early example of the meditations on violence and it's outcomes that are characteristic of later films. It's also an interesting example of early attempts to come to terms with the war (it was filmed in 1949). The thing that amazed me the most about it was the sense of urgency surrounding the whereabouts of a single stolen pistol.
posted by TheWhiteSkull at 3:40 PM on January 30, 2008

+1 for High and Low but Ikiru is also the tops.
posted by jwest at 5:16 PM on January 30, 2008

Rashomon. Oh goddamn RASHOMON!!

*Swoons, Faints*
posted by Skygazer at 8:05 PM on January 30, 2008

Ikiru. One of my top 10. I remember the first time I saw it, thinking it was kind of long. The message of the move sank in during the last 30 minutes or so. Pure genius!
posted by MetaMan at 10:24 PM on January 30, 2008

A few years ago they were talking about remaking Ikiru with Tom Hanks in the main role. Well, at least 4 years ago they had a director attached.

Dreamworks also owns the rights to Seven Samurai.

It takes a special kind of arrogance to remake Kurosawa movies.
posted by slimepuppy at 4:49 AM on January 31, 2008

Nothing against Tom Hanks, he's a fun and enjoyable actor, but I have very serious doubts about his playing the Shimura role in Ikiru. Shimura channeled some serious psychic and spiritual energies towards that role. Who knows he may rise up to the challenge. Another important thing would be capturing the American equivalent of post war tokyo in all it's ruin and decadence. I'm not sure how they're going to create that backdrop unless maybe it takes place in NYC shortly after 911. But even then, it's a far cry from the year zero quality of Japan after WW II.

That film might seriously suck.

Slime, it does take some serious cajones, to remake a Kurosawa movie, doesn't it.
posted by Skygazer at 8:42 AM on January 31, 2008

Ah, Kurosawa. He rocks.
posted by filmgeek at 11:18 PM on February 3, 2008

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