One of Kurosawa’s greatest films features zero samurai swords

One of Kurosawa’s greatest films features zero samurai swords

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: To celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of another, we look back on films about new starts in life.

Ikiru (1952)

Akira Kurosawa may be best remembered for his samurai and Shakespearean epics, but the legendary Japanese director never made a film more assured and affecting than Ikiru, his 1952 tale of a Tokyo bureaucrat struggling to confront his own mortality and the legacy he will leave behind. Diagnosed with fatal cancer, Watanabe (the magnificent Takashi Shimura) searches for something that will give his previously meaningless life some purpose—a quest that is stymied by relatives who care little about him (save for the inheritance they will eventually receive), but aided by his relationship with a younger, enthusiastic coworker. In her, Watanabe sees a life beyond the stacks of paper that routinely crowd his desk, in an office where nothing ever seems to get done and no one seems to care very much about it.

Though it concerns a dying man, Kurosawa’s drama is fundamentally interested in rebirth, as Watanabe embarks on a mission to transform a cruddy piece of land into a children’s park. With patient attentiveness, the director captures both the depths of Watanabe’s despair and the intensity of his wish to put his stamp on the world—rather than just on work forms—before he dies. In Shimura’s forlorn face, Ikiru locates universal desires with plaintive power. And a flashback-heavy structure furthers the story’s empathetic force, as its final third—in which those attending Watanabe’s funeral attempt to determine what caused the man’s late-in-life metamorphosis—reinforces the profundity of his conversion. The rare film that earns, and deserves, to be dubbed “inspirational,” it’s a masterpiece of human dignity and determination, and one whose unbearably moving closing image has few rivals.

Availability: Ikiru is available on Criterion DVD, which can be obtained through Netflix, and to stream through Hulu Plus.