Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Takashi Shimura, Miki Odagiri, Nobuo Kaneko, Yûnosuko Itô
Directed by Oliver Hermanus
Starring: Bill Nighy, Aimee Lou Wood, Alex Sharp, Adrian Rawlins
Based on The Death of Ivan Ilich, the 1886 novella by Leo Tolstoy, Ikiru holds a spot on Sight & Sound‘s “Greatest Films of All Time.” Roger Ebert called Ikiru Akira Kurosawa’s greatest film, topping even Seven Samurai. Martin Scorsese included it in his list of “39 Essential Foreign Films for a Young Filmmaker.” Ikiru holds a score of 98% on Rotten Tomatoes, 92/100 on Metacritic, and an 8.3 on IMDb. The latter score puts Ikiru at #93 for IMDb’s top 250 films.
Living, a British adaptation of Ikiru, premiered last year in cinemas, 70 years after the Japanese version. The opening credits of the film inform the viewer that it’s a straight remake. Though few film projects are loathed more than exact remakes, Living defied the odds, nabbing two Oscar nominations (for Bill Nighy’s lead performance and for writer Kazuo Ishiguro’s screenplay) last year. Living has a score of 96% on Rotten Tomatoes, an 81/100 on Metacritic, and a 7.3/10 on IMDb.
A friend of mine (the one who told me “never again” after watching Batman Ninja) has been toying with doing an Akira Kurosawa movie marathon. I told him that I’d seen about half of Kurosawa’s films, but there were a few more I wanted to check out before giving him my recommendations. Ikiru was the first item on that checklist.
Obviously, Akira Kurosawa is a master director, so he’s the perfect fit for this month’s theme…
While watching the Oscars this year, however, one of the presenters joked about Living, a British remake of a Japanese film based on a Russian novella. Curious, especially because of Bill Nighy’s nominated performance, I decided to see if the update could match the original. The answer, it turns out, is more complex than a simple compare and contrast.
In 1952, a strait-laced, stoic bureaucrat at city hall keeps a tight grip over his staff. The team’s job? To move papers from one “skyscraper” of files to another. Inconveniently, this team lead (Wantanabe in Ikiru and Williams in Living) must depart work early to visit his doctor. At this appointment, our bureaucrat finds out he has inoperable cancer… and six months to live. At first, he thinks about telling his son and daughter-in-law, but the couple is only interested in his money, not his well-being. Devastated, Wantanabe/Williams realizes that his life has been devoid of meaning.
Despondent, our hero looks to various people in his circle for advice–a playboy author he meets at a diner, a joyful young woman who used to work in his office. Neither, however, can quite give him the answers he seeks. With time running out, Wantanabe/Williams hatches a plan to find meaning in his existence. Can he make something of himself in his final days? Or will he die having never lived at all?
Ikiru is like a special reserve of Scotch–undoubtedly the pinnacle of class but not the average patron’s drink of choice at a bar. In the 70 years since Ikiru‘s release, audiences’ familiarity with the language of film has evolved, and Ikiru‘s value is, sadly, trapped behind many barriers: grainy black-and-white film stock, a foreign language, glacial editing, an introspective character arc. I pride myself on having developed refined cinematic taste, and I understand much of the context surrounding this movie. There is no question that Ikiru is masterful. At 150 minutes, however, it exhausted me.
I personally believe many classic films would better appeal to younger audiences were they recut in a style conducive to current cinematic sensibilities. I also recognize the impossibility of such a request. Editing a beloved auteur’s work erases their original intention. Yet every five minutes or so while I was watching Ikiru, I kept thinking things like, “This exchange is dead weight.” “He’s already had this conversation.” “We get where he’s going. We don’t need to see every shot of him entering the arcade.”
The knife twist of this whole situation is that the final minutes of Ikiru (the swing-set scene from the movie’s cover) still pack an emotional wallop. Rarely do I cry during movies–especially mid-century dramas that try my patience for two-and-a-half hours–yet Ikiru had me running to grab the Kleenex box.
Floored by Kurosawa’s film, I was also resigned to the reality that it was steadily becoming esoteric, enjoyed only by the highest echelon of snobby film theorists…
Living, then, is a godsend. Frankly, from a cinematic point of view, Ikiru is better–but not by much. Living successfully removes the barriers I spoke of earlier–its lush color, modern pacing, and shorter runtime rejuvenate the material. While I don’t personally mind subtitles, I know many who do, so the English language in Living is another curb-appeal factor for many Americans. Otherwise, besides a few scene rearrangements and cultural substitutions, Living is almost slavishly remade in Ikiru‘s fashion.
Paradoxically, Living‘s British setting reveals unexpected cultural parallels (e.g. both films involve a WWII bomb site in need of repair). This truth, I imagine, was carefully crafted by Living‘s screenwriter, Kazuo Ishiguro, a Nobel-prize-winning author whose Japanese ancestry and British upbringing undoubtedly gave him a uniquely qualified perspective. Living is also anchored by a tour-de-force performance from Bill Nighy, an actor known for his statuesque exterior. The deep longing Nighy reveals as Living plays out expertly melts through his character’s icy demeanor. Combined with Aimee Lou Wood’s bubbly turn, the two create a relationship distinct from Ikiru‘s version, yet equally effective.
Though I wasn’t as emotionally bowled over by Living‘s climax, I have a feeling that was because I was constantly comparing it to the Japanese original. I spent much of the film’s runtime in relieved shock: “Did they actually pull this off?” “Oh, nice, they trimmed that part down!” “They did the bunny arcade bit!” If IMDb’s and Rotten Tomatoes’ user reviews are trustworthy, though, Living‘s climax hits unsuspecting viewers the way Ikiru‘s final scenes hit me.
Living perfectly executes what it sets out to do, updating the cinematography and editing to fit with contemporary audiences. That achievement, however, hardly diminishes Ikiru‘s worth. Shinobu Hashimoto/Hideo Oguni’s screenplay searingly indicts Japanese bureaucratic apathy. Takashi Shimura’s lead performance includes an undertone of desperation and doubt in the character’s final moments that isn’t present in Nighy’s portrayal. Kurosawa’s direction, specifically his flashback-heavy second half, is ingenious, continuing to inspire today.
Were I to recommend one to friends and family, however, I would choose Living. It’s more accessible and requires little context to enjoy. The nature of the story is heavy, and that heaviness takes a toll on viewers’ minds. The mere fact that Living is shot in color and 45 minutes shorter than Ikiru makes the remake more appealing to the average filmgoer.
Cinephiles, however, should watch both movies in chronological order. Comparing the versions to each other is both fascinating and revelatory. By watching both versions, a viewer realizes the universality of the story and the profound impact of its message.