Toward the beginning of Ikiru (1952), Akira Kurosawa’s rather amazing blend of sentimentality and cynicism, a narrator informs us that the hero of our story is already dead. He’s speaking metaphorically, of course, although the man in question, Mr. Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), an aging government employee who one co-worker has nicknamed “the mummy,” does seem to have given up the ghost.

After 30 years of faithful service, Watanabe has risen to the level of invisible cog, a rubber-stamper in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy that seems to have been designed to get little if anything done. He lives with his son and daughter-in-law, who barely tolerate him, and displays a highly developed sense of his own insignificance through his slow gait, permanent slump and hesitant, barely audible whisper of a voice.

It’s an insignificance that he’s learned to live with, but when he finds out he’s dying from stomach cancer and may have only a few months left to live, he slowly becomes reanimated. At first it seems as though he’s going to drown in his own self-pity, but once he latches onto a project that he feels will give his life some meaning, he turns the force of his strongest characteristic — his persistence — against the ineffectual bureaucracy where he has so long suffered in silence. And, this being a Kurosawa film, in a sense he prevails and in another sense he doesn’t.

This is a tale that could very easily (and on a few occasions does) slide into sentimental excess. But Kurosawa and his co-writer, Shinobu Hashimoto, have developed a scenario that ranges wider (the film runs 2 hours and 23 minutes) than a summary of its central story might suggest. We also get a sizable slice of post-war Japanese nightlife, a sly political satire and a nearly 50-minute-long set piece at Watanabe’s wake, which begins with rote expressions of sad respect and then, as the sake begins to flow, disintegrates into a drunken free-for-all of screaming accusations, self-chastisements and boozy grief.

Part humanist fable and part black comedy, Ikiru celebrates Watanabe’s indomitable spirit, while at the same time casting a jaundiced eye at the society around him. It’s a rich and complicated balance, anchored by Shimura’s near pantomime performance. And even when the film falters, Kurosawa’s audacity remains impressive.


Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday-Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail letters@metrotimes.com.

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at letters@metrotimes.com.

Detroit Metro Times works for you, and your support is essential.

Our small but mighty local team works tirelessly to bring you high-quality, uncensored news and cultural coverage of Detroit and beyond.

Unlike many newspapers, ours is free – and we'd like to keep it that way, because we believe, now more than ever, everyone deserves access to accurate, independent coverage of their community.

Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing pledge, your support helps keep Detroit's true free press free.