If you haven’t seen the marvelous Japanese film Ikiru (Akira Kurosawa, 1952), you’ve missed something special. It tells the story of Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), an ordinary man who works in the Department of Public Works, a typical government bureaucracy where papers are shuffled, files are stacked, and customers are given the runaround with nothing much ever being accomplished. Watanabe has been a petty and uncaring bureaucrat, proud of his position at the department, but not serving the community who are his clients. When he discovers that he has a terminal disease, he realizes his ineffectualness and despairs at the fact that his life hasn’t amounted to anything.
Watanabe has risen within the department and created a dignified demeanor that commands respect from his colleagues, but he hasn’t accomplished anything of lasting value. He has a son and daughter-in-law who treat him respectfully, but only because they expect to inherit his savings someday. His impending death awakens him to the fruitlessness of his life, and instills in him the desire to leave behind a legacy. Not a mere inheritance, but a true legacy. He learns that there is more to being a gentleman than commanding respect; true respect is not commanded but earned. Ikiru is a shimmering, glorious film.
Watanabe has been a petty and uncaring bureaucrat, proud of his position at the department, but not serving the community who are his clients.
Living is a remake of Ikiru set in London in 1953, the year after Ikiru was made, subtly suggesting that there is a Watanabe in every town and every walk of life — that in some respects, we all fall short of living. (“Ikiru” means “to live,” but it was released in the United States under the nihilistic title The Doomed.) Living, too, shimmers cinematically. The film is not only set in 1953, with appropriately vintage costumes, automobiles, buildings, and signs, but it also has the appearance of a film that was made in 1953 — the slightly grainy texture, the faded colors, the classic soundtrack that would feel at home in a concert hall. I had to check the IMDB listing to make sure I hadn’t stumbled into a classic film festival.
Contributing to this otherworldly tone is the lush and romantic score. Each piece is carefully selected to accompany each scene, with titles that could serve as chapter headings — “Alone Together,” “Yesterdays,” “Fascination,” “Coffee Time,” “Impromptu.” The music is opulent, an ironic counterpoint to the bureaucrat’s life.
In this remake, the ordinary man, Mr. Williams (played brilliantly by Bill Nighy) is the consummate British gentleman whose impeccable manners prevent him from expressing his emotion in public. Williams reflects stoically on the news, composes his face when he starts to break down, then gasps wrenchingly to control the tears that want desperately to flow from his eyes. We realize poignantly that he mourns not that he is dying, but that he has never lived.
The remake subtly suggests that there is a Watanabe in every town and every walk of life — that in some respects, we all fall short of living.
As a child, Williams saw the “morning men” standing officiously at the train station, dressed in their hats and coats, carrying their briefcases and umbrellas, and looking very important. He couldn’t imagine anything more wonderful than to be a gentleman such as those men. He has achieved that dream by becoming a manager in the Public Works department, but for what benefit? He wears the hat and coat, but he remains aloof, dull, and unaccomplished. Meanwhile, the files filled with applications from local residents requesting improvements in their neighborhoods remain stacked in a skyscraper of dashed dreams. Both films reveal the stultifying effect of bureaucracy and government employment, where there is no incentive for productivity and no sense that the people seeking help are clients of the department. To a bureaucrat, public works projects just lead to more work.
After his diagnosis, Mr. Williams practices telling his son and daughter-in-law, but they are as aloof from him as he is from his coworkers. Instead, he turns to strangers. First, he meets a man at a diner who introduces him to the faux liveliness of nightclubbing, but the decadent drinking, gambling, and wanton sex hold no attraction for him. He then turns to Miss Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), an ordinary young woman who had worked in his office in the past. She speaks openly and vivaciously to him, now that he isn’t her supervisor, telling him teasingly the nicknames she had for her coworkers there. When he prods her to tell him his nickname, she confesses, “I called you Mr. Zombie.” Then she explains: “Zombies are like mummies that walk about doing things. They’re dead, but they’re not dead.” She doesn’t realize how closely this describes Mr. Williams. But we do. And so does he.
We realize poignantly that he mourns not that he is dying, but that he has never lived.
Mr. Williams wants to feel the joy and laughter that he sees in others. He wants to feel that he has lived. But he can’t live vicariously. It is only when he returns to his office and begins doing the work he and his colleagues were hired to do – public works – that he discovers the joy of productivity and the reward of human affection. The final scene is every bit as moving as the conclusion of Ikiru.
Living makes a strong case for living life abundantly, taking risks, expressing emotion, and making human connections. It also condemns the stultifying pettiness of bureaucracy, although it does not make the leap to recognize the invigorating alternative of free enterprise. Both films are led brilliantly by their lead actors. They can be painful to watch for those of a certain age where there are more years than accomplishments in the rearview mirror, or where family estrangement has left an emptiness in the heart. Living and Ikiru suggest, however, that it is never too late to create a legacy – a reason to be remembered not only with respect, but with affection.
Review of Ikiru, directed by Akira Kurosawa. Toho, 1952, 143 minutes; and Living, directed by Oliver Hermanus. Number 9 Films, 2022, 102 minutes.