After seeing Living last year, which was one of my favourite films of 2022, I really wanted to check out the film it was based on, Ikiru by Akira Kurosawa. What I wasn’t expecting was how close the adaptation actually is. I want to make it clear that I watched Ikiru second, because I think seeing Living first changed the way I experienced Ikiru, simply because they’re so similar. They’re both incredibly well made films, with great performances, and both make you think about life and reflect on what you find important. It’s inspiring and life affirming. There’s definitely some differences, but the main themes and story moments are the same.
Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) finds out that he has terminal stomach cancer and starts to look at his life and the path it’s taken. He’s spent thirty years in a dead-end bureaucratic job at city hall that has sucked out all of his passion out of his job and life in general. There’s a really telling moment at the beginning as he opens his desk drawer, which reveals a document that he submitted decades earlier where he suggested ways to make the department more efficient, which was rejected. After he gets his diagnosis, he stops going to work and starts to try and find a way to live life to the fullest, except he doesn’t know how.
Ikiru is a really sombre and slow film, that takes it time and really shows how Watanabe reflects on his life and the time he has left. At first he tries to tell his family, but he can’t. He’s so distraught by what he’s been told that he doesn’t even turn the light on when he gets home. He’s fully aware that life has passed him by and that he’s been acting almost as if he’s been dead for a long time, like a walking mummy. He sits in the darkness and waits for his son, and daughter-in-law, to return home, and when they do they discuss him while walking through the house thinking that he isn’t there. They want to get to his savings and his pension before he dies, and when they turn the light on to find him there, there’s not even a hint of an apology or any concern towards him. He leaves the room and mourns the loss of his wife in silence while they continue their evening. Watanabe’s wife died years earlier, when their son was still little, since then he’s put his own life aside to make sure that his son is looked after, and now that he’s older there’s no appreciation of that.
At one point, in one of the saddest moments of the film, Watanabe’s son shouts downstairs to him, and he gets up and immediately goes to his son, desperately looking for human connection. Instead, his son just asks him to lock up downstairs since they’re going to bed. The look on Watanabe’s face is heart-breaking, as he’s shut out from having that connection to his son that he needs at that moment. Takashi Shimura, who appeared in twenty-one of Akira Kurosawa’s films, is simply brilliant in this film. His quiet performance is incredibly moving and emotional.
When he’s unable to connect with his family, and not wanting to return to work, Watanabe looks for other ways to start living. He goes out on an all night drinking session, which has highs and lows. He also becomes friends with a younger co-worker, who shows him how to find joy in the little moments in life, even if he doesn’t quite understand it at first. She teaches him that creating something brings joy to her life, so he tries to bring joy to others.
The film starts with a really light-hearted tone as a narrator introduces us to our protagonist and bluntly explains how he hasn’t been living and is soon going to find out that he’s closer to the end of his life than he’d realised. It’s almost comical and the film in general does have a sense of humour, although it’s not a comedy by any stretch. It also has an unconventional structure. A little over halfway through Watanabe dies, and the rest of the film is told through flashbacks as his co-workers and family discuss how he changed over the last few months of his life, and couldn’t work out if he knew he was going to die or not. This sequence has a very poignant message where the characters discuss that they would also change if they knew they were going to die, and when someone points out that they could die at any moment they initially dismiss it. Then as that reality sinks in they promise that they will change the way they live, but ultimately don’t follow through with that and the routine returns.
Overall, I think both of Ikiru and Living are brilliant. For me, Living had a bigger impact on me that Ikiru but that’s simply because I watched that one first and they’re both similar. I would recommend watching either and if you liked one, you’ll probably like the other. There’s enough subtle differences to make them both worth watching in their own right.
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