by Jason Suzuki
There's not much to say about Ikiru now that more than sixty years have passed since it was made, and so much attention and praise has been devoted to it during that time. It's one of the first films you see when you're getting into Kurosawa and Japanese film. It might even be one of the first films you see when getting into film in general. Criterion's new release of the film does not add any new special features, already having about 2 hours worth, 4 if you include the commentary from Stephen Prince, which have been ported over from the previous release. What is worth getting about this release is that the presentation of the film, now in HD with lossless audio, is so much better and a great reason to revisit the film no matter how many times you have already seen it.
I have always thought of Shimura's performance as Kanji Watanabe, the man with only six months left to live, as the perfected version of his character in Kurosawa's Scandal made two years before. Both are men who come to reevaluate their lives and set out to try and change before it's too late. But while Scandal was overly didactic (and not in the interesting way Throne of Blood was) and with Ikiru there is not only tragedy but humor and irony in regards to Shimura's performance. So while the premise of the film has much more potential to be melodramatic, it never does so to the level of Scandal. The brilliant way the film allows Watanabe to die mid-film, having an extended conclusion take place at his wake, adds fire to the discussion on just how cynical Kurosawa's film is, while never losing his usual humanism.
For those who did not have the previous release of only had the Essential Art House release of Ikiru there are some great extras here. The standout is a feature length documentary produced by Kurosawa Productions entitled: A Message from Akira Kurosawa: For Beautiful Movies. The documentary is divided into chapters focusing on individual parts of Kurosawa's filmmaking process from screenwriting, art direction, lighting, music, and so on to create a more focused sense of the man and how his process works. It is an extremely well made miniature filmmaking school. When Kurosawa or someone is talking about the process, usually the film will play a clip from one of his 30 films to illustrate what is being said. The films used as examples don't just include the usual Rashomon and Seven Samurai, we get clips from The Idiot and because of the access digital camcorders must have allowed a behind-the-scenes videographer we get a lot of great footage from the making-of and final cuts of Rhapsody in August and Madadayo. For this reason though it's hard to tell why this feature was paired with Ikiru as it might have gone better with potential future releases of Madadayo and is Criterion hopefully has the rights, Rhapsody in August.
And as usual with Criterion's other Kurosawa releases they have included the segment pertinent to the film from Toho's series It is Wonderful to Create. If you felt the Message from Akira Kurosawa doc didn't have much on Ikiru then this will satisfy you. My favorite section was the inclusion of info on Shimura, showing some early musicals he was in was a treat. Other individuals who show up include actress Miki Odagiri, Teruyo Nogami, and script collaborator Shinobu Hashimoto each with unique anecdotes. For more details on the writing process of the film check out Shinobu Hashimoto's recently translated book Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I. We get some words from the man but it's a fascinating read once he is able to go more in depth on the process of scriptwriting with Kurosawa and Oguni. Along with these two longer featurettes the original trailer to the film is included and Stephen Prince's commentary is a great combination of historical context and in-depth technical analysis of the film.
Whenever an upgrade like this comes around it always seems like they are not being released quick enough. Eventual upgrades of Red Beard and eventual hi-def releases of Kurosawa's last three films will hopefully come soon but for now we can now enjoy one of his major works in such great detail.
Jason Suzuki is co-editor of Cinema Adrift.