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Akira Kurosawa
Takashi Shimura, Nobuo Kaneko, Shin'ichi Himori
Writing Credits:
Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni

A bureaucrat tries to find meaning in his life after he discovers he has terminal cancer.

Rated NR.

Aspect Ratio: 1.37:1
Japanese LPCM Monaural
Supplements Subtitles:

Runtime: 143 min.
Price: $39.95
Release Date: 11/24/2015

• Audio Commentary with Film Historian Stephen Prince
• “A Message from Akira Kurosawa” Documentary
• “It Is Wonderful to Create” Documentary
• Trailer
• Booklet


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Ikiru: Criterion Collection [Blu-Ray] (1951)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (April 26, 2023)

Between his classics Rashomon and Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa produced a drama called Ikiru. With a title that translates as “to live”, this provides a small-scale human drama.

After years in the same monotonous civil service position, widower Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) nears retirement. He lives with son Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) and daughter-in-law Kazue (Kyoko Seki), both of whom seem concerned with little more than their future inheritance.

When Kanji learns he suffers from terminal stomach cancer, he decides to alter his life. In particular, he feels compelled to use his place as a government employee to help where he can.

Audiences got a remake of Ikiru in 2022. With Bill Nighy in the lead role, Living transposed the story to 1950s England.

I saw Living before I viewed Ikiru - indeed, I didn’t know the Kurosawa film existed until I watched the 2022 version. Inevitably, this makes it difficult for me to consider the 1951 film without comparisons to its recent adaptation.

And this creates an obstacle simply because Living bowled me over. I went into it with little knowledge of what to expect, and I found the movie to offer a moving personal journey.

Given this background, I couldn’t enter Ikiru on the same terms. Of course, the pair differ for a variety of reasons, but with many commonalities, the 1951 movie lacked the same ability to surprise me.

As such, I find it very tough to view Ikiru purely on its own terms. As a version of this particular story, I think it works well, but I prefer the 2022 take.

I know: it comes across as sacrilege to favor a remake of Kurosawa to the “real thing”. But Kurosawa wasn’t infallible, and others could improve his work – I’m sure plenty of folks would pick The Magnificent Seven over Seven Samurai.

In the case of Ikiru, I suspect language and cultural barriers make it a little more difficult for me to invest in it vs. its English remake. Movies like Samurai boast enough action to ensure they appeal to a mix of audiences, but Ikiru focuses so heavily on characters that I find it tougher to embrace.

Not impossible, mind you – just more difficult. A film like this relies on performance more than an adventure does, and when the viewer doesn’t understand the language, it feels like more of an obstacle.

Don’t take that as an indication that Ikiru falters in that regard, however, as the actors fare well. The style of the day was more theatrical than what we’d get now, but the performers – especially Shimura – bring humanity and depth to their roles.

Kurosawa probably allows Ikiru to run too long, however. The more compact Living lasts a good 40 minutes less than this one’s 142 minutes, and that tighter length makes more sense to me.

A simple story at its heart, Ikiru doesn’t feel like a match for a nearly two-and-a-half-hour running time. This version ends up with much too much time spent on Kanji’s casual activities, and these moments seem like they fill too much space.

A little of this goes a long way, and it can feel like the movie departs from its main plot for too long. While these scenes add some value, I suspect shorter segments would work as well – or better, as they’d seem less redundant.

Ultimately, I think Ikiru offers an engaging drama that I would probably like more if I saw it before I watched its 2022 remake. Kurosawa creates a commendable tale but not one that I think stands among his best.

The Disc Grades: Picture C+/ Audio C+/ Bonus B

Ikiru appears in an aspect ratio of 1.37:1 on this Blu-ray Disc. Though some problems occasionally emerged, this usually felt like a good presentation.

Really, only one prominent issue materialized here: defects on the print. While much of the film passed without flaws, we occasionally got batches of scratches. Occasional specks, vertical lines and marks popped up as well, but the scratches became the most noticeable issue.

The presence of these defects felt like a shame, as the rest of the movie offered appealing visuals. Sharpness usually worked fine, as delineation seemed appealing. A little softness crept into some shots, but most of the film brought positive delineation.

No issues with jagged edges or moiré effects appeared, and edge haloes remained absent. Grain seemed natural.

Blacks appeared deep and dense, while shadows brought nice clarity. Some exceptions occurred, though, such as around the 40-minute mark, when the blacks fluctuated from dark to gray-ish. This ended up as a watchable image but one that could use some help.

I felt the LPCM monaural audio of Ikiru seemed lackluster but adequate given the movie’s age and origins. The lines felt a bit edgy and metallic much of the time.

Music was generally adequate. The score could sound somewhat shrill at times, but it usually appeared acceptable, if without a lot of range.

The same went for effects. While these occasionally came across as distorted, they still provided acceptable clarity. Nothing here was memorable, but the mix was acceptable for its period.

When we shift to extras, we launch with an audio commentary from film historian Stephen Prince. Recorded in 2003, he brings a running, screen-specific look at where the film fits in Kurosawa’s catalog, influences and inspirations, cultural and historical context, themes and meaning, various cinematic techniques and some production notes.

Don’t expect much from that last category, though, as Prince devotes only a little time to elements that surround the movie’s creation. He prefers a more introspective view of the film.

While I’d like to know more about the shoot itself, this approach still works fine. Prince helps put Ikiru in the proper context and reveals a lot of information to make the movie resonate.

Made in 2000, a documentary called A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies runs one hour, 21 minutes, 21 seconds. It provides notes from Kurosawa, daughter Kazuko Kurosawa, and lighting director Takeji Sano.

Despite that mix of participants, we mostly hear from an unnamed narrator and Akira Kurosawa himself. The film offers some basics about the filmmaker’s life and career, but much of it focuses on his techniques and cinematic philosophies.

As a result, “Message” can feel a little disjointed at times. Nonetheless, it offers a generally positive view of Kurosawa’s work and benefits from so much time with the man himself.

In addition to the film’s trailer, we get a 2002 program entitled It Is Wonderful to Create. It spans 41 minutes, 38 seconds an involves screenwriter Shinobu Hashimoto, script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, art director Yoshiro Muraki, lighting man Shinji Kojima, sound effects director Ichiro Minawa, set decorator Akio Nojima, and actors Takashi Shimura, Miki Odagiri and Kin Sugai.

“Create” delivers a look at the making of Ikiru. It offers a pretty solid view of the film’s production, especially given all the time elapsed since its shoot.

Finally, the set concludes with a booklet. It provides credits, art, an essay by critic/travel writer Pico Iyer and a reprint from critic Donald Richie’s 1965 book The Films of Akira Kurosawa. The booklet rounds out the set on a positive note.

As a character drama, Ikiru offers a strong human message. It runs too long and suffers by comparison to its modern remake, but the film still succeeds for the most part. The Blu-ray offers adequate picture and audio as well as a mix of bonus materials. I may prefer the newer version of the story but I’m glad I saw the original.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.5 Stars Number of Votes: 2
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