I have a theory that 1952 was the worst year for cinema. I came up with this by noticing that I hadn't reviewed anything from that year and that there wasn't even anything to fill the gap in my DVD collection. After a bit of investigation, I had my theory. Westerns were going strong, but horror had been killed by Abbott and Costello in the forties and SF was doing even worse. The famous British film franchises (Hammer horror, Carry On, James Bond) hadn't started up yet. The big names you'd think of all slept through 1952 and released nothing: Alfred Hitchcock, Billy Wilder, Stanley Kubrick, Frank Capra and the Ealing comedies.
Historically, of course, it's slap-bang in the middle of McCarthyism, but that's just as true of 1951 and 1953. I think it's just one of those things. Every random distribution has a outlying result somewhere. Mind you, there are still 1952 films. I even drew up a list of possibilities: High Noon, Down Among the Z Men, The Narrow Margin, The Quiet Man, The Black Castle, Monkey Business, Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla, etc. However the fact of the matter is that Hollywood was rubbish in the 1950s. Try the rest of the world instead. Restricting ourselves to directors who released something in 1952, there's David Lean in Britain if you must watch something in English, but personally I'd suggest going to Japan (Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Misoguchi) or Italy (Roberto Rosselini, Vittorio De Sica).
Today's film I've often seen called the greatest film of Akira Kurosawa, who's famous for supposedly being the all-time greatest Japanese director. However it's also a black-and-white foreign-language film that's almost two and a half hours long and is about a bureaucrat who's dying of stomach cancer. Probably doesn't sound like light viewing, right? Sure enough, browse a few reviews and you'll find everyone saying how they're sure most people these days won't be able to get past the running time, the subtitles, the low-key story, etc. I disagree. Personally I found Ikiru more entertaining than Kurosawa's samurai epics, on top of also being profound, thought-provoking, life-changing and so on. Firstly, it's funny! I hadn't expected that at all. They're subtle character moments rather than gags, but even so check out the hat comedy, for instance. Takashi Shimura's also fascinating in the lead role, capable of being almost child-like despite the fact that he's a dying old man. As the narrator says, he's never really lived. He's seeing the world for the first time and there's a lot of discovery going on in that. This can be funny, but the comedy isn't all from him, since the film's tone is so delicate and truthful that I'd also be laughing at things like the misunderstandings of Shimura's son and daughter-in-law. This is a long film with a serious message, but it's surprisingly light in how it delivers it.
Of all things, to me it felt like Dickens. There's something here that captures a certain spirit of Charles Dickens better than I've ever seen before in a film, including Dickens adaptations. It's the combination of social conscience and open venom. Kurosawa's taking no prisoners. Like Dickens, he's putting the boot into his own society, mocking its bureaucracy so savagely that you'd have to call it a satire except that I don't think it's exaggerated. What's more, sometimes he'll stop the film to talk to us directly. There's a narrator, who for instance introduces Shimura by saying that he's dead inside and working in a government department where nothing gets done and the only thing anyone cares about is inter-departmental power rivalry. I'm paraphrasing, but not exaggerating. It's that blatant. Normally you'd call this a violation of "show, don't tell", except that Kurosawa's also so swaggeringly good at the "show" part that the film goes nuclear in its satire level and stays there for two and a half hours.
This is awesome. It's like Dickens's cudgel-swinging in the early chapters of Oliver Twist.
Then you've got the fact that 1952 Japan is more interesting than the Edo period. Samurai are dull. Sorry, but they bore the arse off me. Post-war Japan on the other hand was this extraordinary world racing to throw aside everything it had previously been and turn itself into a modern Western democracy, with old-fashioned Japanese values and attitudes side by side with 1950s fashions, music and so on. They've got bars, boogie-woogie and girls with a slightly epileptic dance style. In one scene they've also got gangsters, in case you thought Kurosawa was above doing yakuza flicks. Most importantly the characters and their problems are much easier to relate to than those you'll get in samurai period dramas and I don't think I'm just saying that because I've lived over there.
The story isn't quite what I'd expected. I knew Shimura would end up building a children's playground, but I hadn't expected this to take less than an hour at the end of the film and to be shown to us in flashback at the wake of his funeral. The film goes through three stages. The first has us getting to know Shimura, his world and his life. This section is the most satirical, as with for instance the sequence of the women trying to kick the city's various local government departments into doing something. Then there's the horrific view Kurosawa has of his country's medical profession, in which Shimura receives his death sentence by accident in the waiting room and then gets lied to up and down by his doctor. There's black comedy in there, by the way.
The film's second phase is about how Shimura reacts to this. What's interesting is that he's looking for something big to do, but he doesn't know what it is. He doesn't have the imagination for it. He's been shutting up his soul in a box for thirty years and now he wants to be a human being again, but he's forgotten how to live. This is where the title comes in. "Ikiru" means "to live", which is one of Kurosawa's big themes. He keeps pointing out to us that Shimura's been pushed into this extreme reaction by learning that he's going to die, but that there's no reason why you and I shouldn't be behaving the same way. It shouldn't take a death sentence to kick us into life. The satire's being dialled back a bit here, since this part's all about Shimura.
After that comes the third act, in which Shimura's family and colleagues gather at his wake. You know, in case you'd thought the film hadn't really been going to kill him. This is where the film stops merely criticising its bastards and starts taking apart their self-serving excuses with a chainsaw, stepping up to yet another level as it becomes both more raw and more profound. Wow, these guys are scum. The man's dead and they're practically pissing on his grave. A lot gets said here and you can watch Kurosawa systematically demolishing all of the weaselly arguments against Shimura as the assembled mourners become ever more unruly, drunk and honest. They're us, by the way. The film's really talking to us. It still feels relevant today, incidentally, since although there's a lot of very specific cultural context to these particular characters, I don't think anyone can pretend that time-serving jobsworth bureaucrats and people losing touch with their souls aren't part of the modern world too.
For a modern audience, one oddity of the film is that it's moving in unexpected little ways rather than big telegraphed ones. Movies today are choreographed. You can see where you're supposed to cry and so on. This on the other hand isn't telling you what to feel, but is simply showing you a man's life and letting you react as yourself. It's extraordinary, actually.
Then you've got the actors. I loved the graceless girl who laughs too much, but obviously Takashi Shimura's our main man. Look at all the things he's doing. Firstly, he's playing a boring old man with a brain that's almost shut down through disuse and making him compelling for an audience, without for a moment back-pedalling on his character. On the contrary, there's something rather stunning about how completely he's inhabiting the role. You know how it is when characters talk about other characters in films? It's surprisingly rare for the words in the script to feel as if they're really describing the actors in front of us, but in this film Shimura makes every word said about his character feel not just true but almost profoundly so. It's a complete physical performance, as well as an emotional one. Look at the way his eyes seem to change size, for instance. He finds little ways of being funny and of finding great depth in this simple man. It's a performance to turn a film into one of the classics of its generation... and it did.
This is the only Kurosawa film without Toshiro Mifune between Drunken Angel and Red Beard, by the way.
Ikiru has had remakes, which seems vaguely sacrilegious even though they're probably worth watching. There's a 2007 Japanese TV one and two Indian versions: Anand (1971) and Chitrashalabham (1998). This one though is all kinds of awesome. It's lighter and more entertaining than I'd expected, but it's also saying profound things about its characters and human nature. It bears proper comparison with Charles Dickens in its "get out your cudgels" social criticism, at which Dickens wins on energy and belly-laughs but Kurosawa leaves him standing on nuance and characterisation. Overall this film isn't merely good. Like Citizen Kane, it's one of those films that's clearly working on a level above and beyond most cinema. Personally I'd say Citizen Kane is the less entertaining of the two, though.