The film opens with an almost painfully didactic prologue that may make the viewer suspect that he is in store for a heavy-handed diatribe of the sort that often was, and occasionally still is, mistaken for profound artistry. Fortunately, once Kurosawa has gotten past this initial awkwardness, he goes on to tell a genuinely delightful tale.
The director, at first, reveals a protagonist who has lived his life working at a dreary job, at which he has accomplished nothing. Kurosawa then goes on to show how, when this man examines his existence, he can see little in the world that is better for his having been there. While this perception is eventually exposed as not being entirely true, as the man has devoted his life to providing for his son and has sacrificed much for his child's sake, its reality for the protagonist is made clear.
In fact, the whole of the journey he takes over the course of the movie is nicely delineated. For instance, when Kanji learns that he does not have long to live, he initially feels wretched and gives himself over to visiting bars and drinking until late at night, but he finds no solace in this. It is only after he meets up with Toyo that he begins to see what he wants from his last days. Even though she, in time, begins to grow uncomfortable with the attention he is giving her, he remains intoxicated by her joyousness and allows it to transform his own life. The changes the man undergoes really are touching.
That said, I will concede that the director's presentation of his protagonist's efforts to build the playground in a series of flashbacks depicting stories told by persons at the man's funeral can be a little forced. Actually, the device is often contrived and clumsy. Nonetheless, the events revealed are often so charming, poignant, or both that they are still sure to charm the viewer.
Ikiru may not be Kurosawa's best film, but it is so human, so kindly in spirit, and, except for a few missteps, so subtle, that it is a pleasure to watch.
Review by Keith Allen
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