By 1952 when Akira Kurosawa's Ikiru (To Live) was released, the director had already received international acclaim for Rashoman, including the top prize at the 1951 Venice Film Festival, and the director was plunging into his career with a renewed vigour and confidence. Continuing the social consciousness that had first emerged in Drunken Angel, Kurosawa again focused on the individual struggling in the post-war social milieu of Japan in Ikiru. Often compared with Ingmar Bergman's Wild Strawberries, Kurosawa based Ikiru on Tolstoy's Death of Ivan Ilych, following a once ambitious bureaucrat named Kanji Watanabe who has settled into a bureaucracy where ambition and originality are frowned upon and can actually present a danger to one's job. Upon learning that he has stomach cancer, Watanabe is forced into a re-evaluation of his life, finally, presumably finding internal peace before he passes away. Ikiru consists of long sequences that are meticulously designed. Each and every shot shows Kurosawa's training as a painter with deep-focus allowing him to play with dimensions and camera angles that produce some of the most stunningly meaningful images found in the cinema. Kurosawa said that in each of his films there are images that are pure cinema, powerfully emotional yet incapable of being deconstructed into anything close to objective meaning. Ikiru has many of these moments and becomes far more a work of art than any of Kurosawa's films that preceded this one. The initial scenes of the film show Watanabe and his colleagues all but drowning in stacks of governmental forms, each awaiting its necessary stamp. Shot after shot is filled with paper, objects, lamps, nameplates - a virtual clutter were it all not so artfully arranged. Up until Watanabe's discovery of his sickness, the bureaucrat is most often just one more visual element in each scene. With deep focus shots between stacks of paper, through doors and windows, through rooms full of equipment, Watanabe barely stands out. With his diagnosis, however, and his subsequent self-absorption, the camera zeroes in on Watanabe as he, in fact, zeroes in on himself. There is a long sequence of Watanabe reviewing his upbringing of his son following the death of his wife - the heartbreak of witnessing his son's failures, the boy's fear of going off to war and Watanabe's own failures when he proved to be heartlessly immune to his son's concern. Another long sequence follows a night of intended debauchery with a novelist whom Watanabe meets in a small neighborhood bar. From bar to bar, dancehall to dancehall, red light district to red light district, Watanabe accompanies the writer while not a smile makes its way onto his face. Nevertheless. he finishes the night with a new night on his head, a sign that whatever life he has left will be led as a different man. After a couple false starts, Watanabe finally discovers that in his role as a bureaucrat, he actually has the capacity to satisfy the needs of his life. He breaks ranks with the bureaucracy, takes up the cause of a group of mothers and makes sure that the park they are proposing gets built. Nevertheless, in true Kurosawa fashion and certainly to be expected after the multiple points-of-view that made Rashomon so revolutionary, the director leaves us pondering numerous interpretations of Watanabe and his actions. About the only sure conclusion that we can make is that Watanabe himself died in peace. But his legacy is debated by those who lived close to him. Not at all unlike the life a real human being.
After Rashomon, Kurosawa just kept getting better.