Akira Kurosawa's epic Samurai films are among the greatest movies ever made. But it is a quiet, intimate story about a very different sort of hero—a mid-level bureaucrat confronted with the futility of his own life—which may be the director's masterpiece. Certainly it is one of his most spiritual films.

Ikiru, recently released on DVD, is the story of Mr. Watanabe, the paper-shifting Section Chief of the municipal Public Affairs Department. For decades he has hoarded his money, his time and his affections until, with only months left to live, he discovers he no longer knows how to spend them. Played with wrenching vulnerability by Takashi Shimura, this may be the definitive portrait of a man who, examining his life, discovers that it may not be worth living.

The film opens with a stark X-ray image and the unemotional declaration that "This stomach belongs to the protagonist of our story. At this point, our protagonist has no idea he has this cancer." He shifts papers from one pile to another. He cleans his rubber stamp (using the cover page of a efficiency manual he created decades ago, when his job still mattered). He peers over his glasses at a young woman who dares interrupt the decorum of the office by laughing and telling stories. She will not last much longer in this sour, cramped place. But then, neither will Watanabe.

In a gorgeously choreographed sequence unbroken by a single edit, the frame crowded with people moving around a doctor's waiting room, "our protagonist" moves closer and closer to the camera as if to escape a fellow patient and his news that Watanabe's litany of symptoms amounts to a death warrant. Suddenly we cut to a distant perspective: we see this shrunken, frightened man sitting framed ...

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Directed By
Akira Kurosawa
Run Time
2 hours 23 minutes
Takashi Shimura, Nobuo Kaneko, Shin'ichi Himori
Theatre Release
March 25, 1956 by Criterion
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