Akira Kurosawa’s ‘Ikiru’ on Max and Criterion Channel

Akira Kurosawa considered Ikiru (Japan, 1952) his greatest triumph. It’s clearly a personal film, one of his most emotionally powerful and most intimate dramas.

The title translates as “To Live” and stars Takashi Shimura (the lead samurai in The Seven Samurai) as a widower single father and career bureaucrat in city politics. He’s living a routine that has numbed him into a kind of sleepwalking existence when he is told he has stomach cancer and realizes that he has wasted his life keeping busy in a largely meaningless job.

After 25 years of punctuality and impersonal interactions with a staff that thinks of him as a dull, emotionless functionary (one young employee nicknames him “The Mummy”), he suddenly drops out, first trying to deaden the fear though drinking and clubbing, and then becoming inspired to accomplish something meaningful with his final days.

The film is split into two parts, the second part jumping ahead to his wake as his coworkers toast his life and, as they compare stories, begin to realize the depth of his transformation as he fought the bureaucratic maze and political fiefdoms to transform an open pit into a children’s park. Flashbacks dot the film, from his memories of how he got to his current state of apathy to his co-workers recalling the sudden passion and humility of his final months.

Kurosawa directs his story without resorting to sentiment or rousing scenes of inspirational drama and Shimura delivers a quiet, introspective performance. It’s a beautiful, touching film and one of the Kurosawa’s best-loved dramas.

It won best film honors at Japan’s Kinema Jumpo Awards and a special prize at the Berlin International Film Festival and actor Takashi Shimura was nominated for a BAFTA when the film was released years later in England.

Black and white, in Japanese with English subtitles

Streams for a limited time on Max and streams on Criterion Channel and free on Kanopy, which is available through most public and college library systems.

Also on Blu-ray and DVD and on SVOD through Amazon Video, iTunes, GooglePlay, Vudu and/or other services. Availability may vary by service.
Ikiru (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray]
Ikiru (The Criterion Collection) [DVD]

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The Criterion Collection DVD and Blu-ray special edition feature critical commentary and two documentaries on Kurosawa plus a booklet with essays.


Sean Axmaker is a Seattle film critic and writer. He writes the weekly newspaper column Stream On Demand and the companion website, and his work appears at RogerEbert.com, Turner Classic Movies online, The Film Noir Foundation, and Parallax View.

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