IKIRU - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

(To Live; Doomed)

Japan, 1952

Director: Akira Kurosawa

Production: Toho (Tokyo); black and white, 35mm; running time: 143 minutes; length: 3918 meters. Released 9 October 1952. Filmed 1952 in Tokyo.

Producer: Shojiro Motoki; screenplay: Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni, and Akira Kurosawa; photography: Asakazu Nakai; editor: Koichi Iwashita; sound: Fumio Yanoguchi; art director: So Matsuyama; music: Fumio Hayasaka; lighting: Shigeru Mori.

Cast: Takashi Shimura ( Kanji Watanabe ); Nobuo Kaneko ( Mitsuo Watanabe ); Kyoko Seki ( Kazue Watanabe ); Makoto Kobori ( Kiichi Watanabe ); Kumeko Urabe ( Taysu Watanabe ); Yoshie Minami ( Maid ); Miki Odagiri ( Toyo Odagiri ); Kamatari Fugiwara ( Ono ); Minosuke Yamada ( Saito ); Haruo Tanaka ( Sakai ); Bokuzen Hidari ( Ohara ); Shinichi Himori ( Kimura ); Nobuo Nakamura ( Deputy Mayor ); Kazuo Abe ( City assemblyman ); Masao Shimizu ( Doctor ); Ko Kimura ( Intern ); Atsushi Watanabe ( Patient ); Yunosuke Ito ( Novelist ); Yatsuko Tanami ( Hostess ); Fuyuki Murakami ( Newspaperman ); Seiji Miyaguchi ( Gang-Boss ); Daisuke Kato ( Gangmember ); Kin Sugai, Eiko Miyoshi, Fumiko Homma ( Housewives ); Ichiro Chiba ( Policeman ); Minoru Chiaki ( Noguchi ); Toranosuke Ogawa ( Park Section Chief ); Tomoo Nagai and Hirayoshi Aono ( Reprters ); Akira Tani ( Old man at bar ); Toshiyuki Ichimura ( Pianist at cabaret ).

Award: The David O. Selznick "Golden Laurel" Award, 1961.



Hashimoto, Shinobu, Hideo Oguni, and Akira Kurosawa, Ikiru , New York, 1969; also in Contemporary Japanese Cinema , edited by Howard Hibbet, New York, 1977.


Anderson, Joseph, and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry , New York, 1960; revised edition, Princeton, 1982.

Richie, Donald, Japanese Movies , Tokyo, 1961; as Japanese Cinema: Film Style and National Character , New York, 1971.

Ezratti, Sacha, Kurosawa , Paris, 1964.

Richie, Donald, The Films of Akira Kurosawa , Berkeley, 1965; revised edition, 1970; 1989; 1999.

Kenny, Don, editor, The Complete Works of Akira Kurosawa , Tokyo, 1971.

Mesnil, Michael, Kurosawa , Paris, 1973.

Bock, Audie, Japanese Film Directors , New York, 1978; revised edition, Tokyo, 1985.

Burch, Noël, To the Distant Observer , Berkeley, 1979.

Erens, Patricia, Akira Kurosawa: A Guide to References and Resources , Boston, 1979.

Anderson, Joseph, and Donald Richie, The Japanese Film: Art and Industry , expanded edition, Princeton, 1982.

Kurosawa, Akira, Something Like an Autobiography , New York, 1982.

Sato, Tadao, Currents in Japanese Cinema , Tokyo, 1982.

Tassone, Aldo, Akira Kurosawa , Paris, 1983.

Goodwin, James, Akira Kurosawa & Intertextual Cinema , Baltimore, 1993.

Goodwin, James, Perspectives on Akira Kurosawa , New York, 1994.

Prince, Stephen, The Warrior's Camera , Princeton, 1999.


Anderson, Joseph, "The History of Japanese Movies," in Films in Review (New York), June-July 1953.

Leyda, Jay, "The Films of Akira Kurosawa," in Sight and Sound (London), Autumn 1954.

Miner, Earl Roy, "Japanese Film in Modern Dress," in Quarterly Review of Film, Radio, and Television (Berkeley), Summer 1956.


Bazin, André, in Cahiers du Cinéma (Paris), March 1957.

Anderson, Lindsay, "2 Inches off the Ground," in Sight and Sound (London) Winter 1957.

Dyer, Peter John, in Films and Filming (London), August 1959.

Crowther, Bosley, in New York Times , 30 January 1960.

Mekas, Jonas, in Village Voice (New York), 10 February 1960.

Roman, Robert, in Films in Review (New York), March 1960.

Bernhardt, William, in Film Quarterly (Berkeley), Summer 1960.

Filmfacts (New York), no. 3, 1960.

McVay, Douglas, in Films and Filming (London), July and August 1961.

"Kurosawa Issue" of Etudes Cinématographiques (Paris), Spring 1964.

Richie, Donald, "Kurosawa on Kurosawa," in Sight and Sound (London), Summer and Autumn 1964.

Kauffmann, Stanley, in A World of Film: Criticism and Comment , New York, 1966.

Passek, Jean-Loup, in Cinéma (Paris), December 1974.

Simone, R. Thomas, "The Myths of 'The Sickness unto Death'. . . ," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury, Maryland), Winter 1975.

Sineaux, Michel, "Eloge de la Folie," in Positif (Paris), January 1975.

Martin, Marcel, in Image et Son (Paris), February 1980.

Magny, Joel, in Cinéma (Paris), March 1980.

Van Beek, S., in Skoop (Amsterdam), August 1980.

Labre, C., "Humilié et initié," in Positif (Paris), October 1980.

Nygren, S., "Doubleness and Idiosyncrasy in Cross-Cultural Analysis," in Quarterly Review of Film and Video (New York), no. 1–3, 1991.

Torres, S., " Vivir ," in Nosferatu (San Sebastian), no. 11, January 1993.

MacKinnon, Gillies, "Haunting Visions," in Sight & Sound (London), vol. 4, no. 11, November 1994.

Bovkis, Elen A., " Ikiru : the Role of Women in a Male Narrative," in CineAction (Toronto), no. 40, May 1996.

Carr, Barbara, "Goethe and Kurosawa: Faust and the Totality of Human Experience—West and East," in Literature/Film Quarterly (Salisbury), vol. 24, no. 3, 1996.

* * *

Akira Kurosawa's popularity in the West has been based primarily on his jidai-geki (period films). The gendai-geki (contemporary dramas), despite the championship of many critics, have been relatively neglected. Ikiru is the major exception to this rule. Its reputation rested initially on the seriousness of its subject (how does a man with only a few months left to live find meaning in life?), its humanism (Kurosawa's commitment to individual heroism, discovered in an apparently insignificant and undistinguished person), its social criticism (the satire on bureaucracy), and the power and directness of its emotional appeal. The film also became central to the anit-Kurosawa backlash led by certain auteur critics bent on attacking the notion that the importance of a film had any connection with the importance of its subject; to them, the humanism seemed naive, the social satire obvious, the emotional effects contrived, laborious and rhetorical. Neither view accounts for the particularity—in some ways the oddity —of Kurosawa's work.

The emphasis on a formal analysis of Ikiru in Noël Burch's brilliant book on Japanese cinema, To the Distant Observer , goes some way towards rectifying the inadequacy of previous approaches. Burch discusses the film in terms of its elaborate and rigorous formal system of symmetries and asymmetries contained within the overall "rough-hewn geometry" that he sees as Kurosawa's most distinctive general characteristic. The film falls into two strongly demarcated sections, the break coming about two-thirds of the way through. The first part begins and ends with the voice of an off-screen narrator, who tells us that Watanabe has only six months to live, and, later, that he has died. The intervening narrative takes us through Watanabe's discovery of his situation and his search to find a meaning for his life, culminating in his moment of decision. The second part (marked formally by the narrator's last intrusion and, in terms of narrative, by the death of the film's hero and central consciousness) shows Watanabe's funeral wake. The two parts are linked by a formal device: each contains five flashbacks the precise pattern of which is inverted in part two. At the same time, each part has its own highly organized formal structure. Part one consists of a prologue which includes the time preceding Watanabe's discovery of his fatal disease, and three sections. The prologue is clearly marked off from the rest by the only use in the film of a striking technical device: the shutting off of the soundtrack in the shot where Watanabe leaves the clinic in a state of shock, totally absorbed by his plight, and is nearly run down by a truck (the sound crashing in again at that moment). The ensuing three sections show the three phases of his search for meaning, each ending in disillusionment: his reevaluation of his relationship with the son to whom his life has been devoted; his plunge into the hedonism of Tokyo's nightlife; his relationship with the young girl who used to work in his office. The first part, then, covers a considerable extent of time and space; the second part (flashbacks and a brief epilogue apart) is contained within a single night and a single room. The three-section structure of part one is "answered" in part two by the three intrusions of outsiders into the wake: the reporters, the women from the district that has benefited from Watanabe's achievement, and the policeman who recounts the manner of his death. Where each of the three sections of part one marked a phase in the search for meaning, each of the intrusions marks a stage in the revelation of the truth about his achievements.

The "rough-hewn geometry," the use of the narrator, the abrupt narrative break, and the frequently disruptive editing all combine to produce a strong sense of distanciation. What is remarkable about Ikiru , and crucial to the Kurosawa "flavor," is the way in which this collides with the film's equally strong emotional rhetoric, setting up a continuous tension between involvement and distance.

—Robin Wood

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