Ikiru (1952)


Despite the failure of The Idiot, after Rashomon began winning awards Kurosawa began to receive new offers to direct films.

For Ikiru, Kurosawa would return to Toho once again. The film, according to its opening credits, was selected as an arts festival selection in 1952.

While many of Kurosawa's films focus on either a single individual or small group of individuals, each one makes a larger universal statement.

Rashomon takes on the human propensity to embellish, The Hidden Fortress deals with friendship and loyalty, and The Bad Sleep Well makes a statement about bureaucratic greed.

Ikiru is a film that focuses on one of the most universal of themes, death.

In fact the film, Kurosawa says, was born out of his own thoughts about death. Thoughts that would resurface a few decades later when Kurosawa attempted suicide.


Ikiru (meaning "to live") revolves around one man, Kanji Watanabe. Watanabe is played by Takashi Shimura in his best and most central role ever in a Kurosawa film.

Watanabe works as the chief of a public affairs office, one of the many branches of a bureaucratic system that we soon realize is incredibly flawed.

While Watanabe toils away, a local women's group comes in to demand a park be made over a cesspool that they claim is making their children sick. Watanabe and the other's give these women the runaround, and they are not seen again until much later in the film.

Watanabe is a seasoned bureaucrat. He has worked without a sick day for over 30 years, a fact his fellow employees are quick to point out when he misses several days of work.

What those employees don't know is that Watanabe has visited the doctor. The doctor tells him he has a minor ulcer, but another patient at the hospital tells Watanabe that this is merely a nice way of telling him that he has stomach cancer.

The news leaves Watanabe devastated. Watanabe, seeking to finally live a little before he dies, happens upon a writer who spends the night with him wandering about the Tokyo night life. Watanabe's fun lasts only a night, the next day he is still as grief stricken as the day before.

With a son and daughter-in-law who don't seem to care about his odd behavior and without anyone else to turn to, Watanabe latches on to a young girl who quits the public affairs office. In her he sees life.

After realizing that he can actually make a difference and do something with his life before he dies, Watanabe commits himself completely to building the park the women were demanding at the beginning of the film.

The rest of the film is told at Watanabe's wake. There the guests tell the rest of the story, trying to figure out exactly what Watanabe's motives were, and who was really responsible for building the park.

After several cups of alcohol, the men commit themselves to living as Watanabe did in his final months.

But as the end of the film shows, a deeply flawed bureaucratic system is not easy to break, and life goes on as it did in the beginning.


Unlike Kurosawa's period films that are more subtly critical of modern Japanese life, his modern day pictures almost always have something to say about the ills of society.

Ikiru is no different. The film is, perhaps with the exception of The Bad Sleep Well, the most wholly critical in that it not only makes a comment on society as a whole, but of human beings in general.

Kurosawa was clearly living in a society that he saw as complacent. The characters in the film talk about the flawed society that they live in, but they are seemingly helpless or too lazy to do anything about it. This is where Watanabe comes in. Watanabe represents the complacent Japanese everyman.

The beginning of the film is marked by narration. In an incredibly smart move by Kurosawa, the narrator brings us into the film world and explains the kind of person Watanabe is.

"He is simply passing time without living his life," the narrator says.

We are told from the beginning that Watanabe has his stomach cancer, and are almost encouraged to make judgments on Watanabe even before we have gotten to know his character. It is because of this that we can more fully appreciate what he does later in the film.

After Kurosawa introduces us to Watanabe, he brings in the problem that he will eventually solve, and raises a societal issue at the same time.

When the group of women come into the public affairs office to see about filling in a cesspool they say is making their children sick, the public affairs clerk tells them to go to the engineering department where they are told to go another section. This game continues until they end up at the same place they started, Watanabe's department.

The women are finally told to simply put their complaint in writing, but are never told that it will be looked at or responded to.

Even at this early stage it is clear that little if anything gets done in this system. Nobody, including the main character, is willing to step in and change anything, and everyone is seemingly content with keeping the system the way it is.

After this the film turns sharply towards the individual instead of the bigger problem. From here we follow Watanabe.

Kurosawa does not often focus on family dynamics. With the exception of 1955's I Live in Fear, the modern Japanese family never really held much importance for Kurosawa. The family was more the domain of Yasujiro Ozu, perhaps most memorably in his film Tokyo Story.

In Ikiru, Watanabe lives with his son Mitsuo and his wife Tatsu. Far from the traditional Japanese children who respect their parents and care for them in their old age, the two are far more interested in themselves and their own lives rather than whatever their father is going through.

They are the new Japanese couple. In pure capitalist fashion their only goals in life are to accumulate wealth, move into a modern home and shed their Japanese traditions. It is only until after their father dies that they realize the error of their ways.

When Watanabe does eventually learn of his impending death, he is totally consumed by it. In a brilliantly filmed sequence, Watanabe walks out of the doctors office and out onto the busy street. Despite all the traffic there is silence on the soundtrack. We are hearing what Watanabe is hearing. He is so utterly consumed by the news he has just received that he is oblivious to his senses. Finally, when he walks out into the street he snaps out of his dream-like state and the soundtrack is flooded with the loud noises of the busy street.

Even though Watanabe admits he is afraid of death, he can think of nothing to do when he is alive.

The writer he meets says it all when he says, "human beings only realize how beautiful life is until they are about to die."

It is only when Watanabe is nearing death that he seeks out new ways to live. Watanabe begins to reinvent himself. He buys a new hat to match his new self. He goes to clubs and dances and drinks to his hearts content. Even during this sequence it is clear the nightlife has little effect on Watanabe's emotional state.

In the most memorable scene of the film Watanabe requests an old song called "Life is Brief" to be played in a dance hall. When the slow song begins Watanabe starts to sing along. His voice causes the others in the room to stop and stare. It is the voice of a dying man. Kurosawa enhances the scene by showing Watanabe's face in close-up.

By the next morning it is clear that he is no more alive than he was the day before.

He then sees new life in the form of the youthful Toyo. With her he laughs and plays games. But this doesn't last forever. Toyo begins to get uncomfortable with an increasingly distraught Watanabe.

Finally he commits himself to building the park. Through this one final act he will live. For him, living is simply doing something out of the ordinary with your life. By breaking from the norm, he is insuring that his life is not going to waste.

Watanabe is not a particularly strong willed character. In several flashbacks he is shown as more of a coward than anything. One example being a flashback of a baseball game where at one moment he is prepared to boast about his son's hit and the next is sinking into his seat with shame over a botched attempt at taking second base.

But Kurosawa shows us that when we do live to the fullest and are determined enough, we can redeem ourselves.

In a series of flashbacks at the wake, we see Watanabe defying adversity and standing up for his cause at every turn.

He confronts the system by taking on the other section chiefs.

He stands face to face with angry businessmen who feel threatened by him.

He even faces the deputy mayor and openly questions his decision to reject the park proposal.

In the end Kurosawa seems to see people as essentially ignorant, and that unless they are either facing death or incredibly drunk, they will never admit to themselves that their lives are mundane and that they essentially dead.

This is exemplified not only by Watanabe's journey from lifeless bureaucrat, but also by the guests at his wake.

One man at the wake defies the others by insisting it was through Watanabe's efforts alone that the park was made. The others believe other factors were to blame, whether it be restaurant owners seeking new land for shops or city officials hoping to be re-elected. It is only when they become drunk that they admit the truth and swear to remember what Watanabe has done.

But slipping into the background is the man who initially spoke up for Watanabe, not having touched a drink he kneels in front of Watanabe's portrait and swears an oath himself.

The audience is certainly asked to relate and sympathize with this man. He most closely resembles what the audience should be feeling and how they should be reacting. We have seen the story from start to finish and know that Watanabe is solely responsible for the park.

The film attempts to end on a light note by showing the fruits of Watanabe's efforts when we see the children playing in the new park.

But it is the scene before this that is more crucial to the film. One of the men at the wake has taken over Watanabe's position.

When a new proposal comes his way he merely passes it off to another section. The sober man from the wake stands up in defiance, but realizing the whole rest of the room is not with him, slowly sits back down.

It is not through the efforts of one man that the society will change, Kurosawa teaches us, but perhaps with enough people change can come.

More than any other film, Ikiru implores its viewing audience to reevaluate their lives. It asks them to decide if they will continue to live day after day doing the same thing simply to keep the status quo, or if they will act as Watanabe did and make something out of their lives.

While many issues addressed in the film relate more to the time it was made, the universal themes of life and death resonate even today.

The Idiot (1951)


If it were not for the worldwide success that Rashomon gained only after The Idiot was released, the films that followed for Kurosawa might have been very different, if he even got to make any at all.

The Idiot, based on the novel of the same name by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, was neither a financial nor critical success.

In his childhood, Kurosawa was exposed to large amounts of foreign literature and films. This is how Kurosawa became acquainted with Dostoyevsky.

Dostoyevsky would remain Kurosawa's favorite author. It was because of his love of Dostoyevsky that Kurosawa would make The Idiot, and it was ultimately the reason why the film failed.

The original cut of the film that Kurosawa did was over four hours long. The studio, Shochiku, cut the film down to 166 minutes against Kurosawa's wishes.

The original cut has been lost.

Needless to say, Kurosawa was devastated by the failure of The Idiot, a film that he poured every ounce of effort and love in to.

Luckily Kurosawa was saved by the success of Rashomon. After The Idiot Kurosawa would go on to make some of the best films of his career.

He would never again direct a film based on material by Dostoyevsky, but he would direct two other films based on Russian source material. These films would be 1957's The Lower Depths and 1975's Dersu Uzala.


Kurosawa's version of The Idiot is set not in Russia but in Japan shortly after the end of World War II.

The film is broken up into two parts. The first part, entitled "Love and Agony", begins with two men traveling back to
Hokkaido, Japan.

Kameda (Masayuki Mori) tells one of his fellow passengers that he is returning from a U.S. Military hospital where he was being held due to "idiocy". Kameda was diagnosed with epileptic dimentia, a mental illness that makes Kameda very childlike.

Kameda tells the man, Akama (Toshiro Mifune), that he was facing a firing squad but was released at the last minute when they realised they had the wrong man.

Akama says he is returning to claim his dead father's fortune and marry a women named Taeko Nasu.

The two men discover that Nasu is actually engaged to a man named Kayama (Minoru Chiaki). At her own birthday party Nasu rejects Kayama after speaking with Kameda.

Kameda tells her to come stay with him, but she rejects him as well, fearing she will tarnish his pure soul. Instead, she goes with Akama and dangles the prospect of marriage in front of him, but never actually marries him.

After discovering Nasu still has feelings for Kameda, Akama attempts to kill him.

In part two, entitled "Love and Loathing", Kameda begins a relationship with another young girl named Ayako.

Before they marry, however, Ayako wants to confront Nasu. The meeting does not go well. Ayako runs away with Kameda in pursuit, and Nasu falls to the floor where she is eventually killed by Akama.

Kameda returns to Akama who is now seemingly suffered the same fate as himself.


The winter landscape in The Idiot looks as much like Dostoevsky's Russia as it does Kurosawa's Japan.

Examples of both Russian and other foreign influences can be found throughout the film.

The Russian song "Night on Bald Mountain" can be heard during the ice carnival scene, and the famous Norwegian song "In the Hall of the Mountain King" can be heard at another point in the film.

Clearly Kurosawa was trying to find a balance between his own country and the country in which the source material was set.

It is far more apparent in part one of the film that it was edited by the studio. The plot moves frantically and the editing often seems jumpy and erratic.

Part one of the film also contains title cards that essentially tell the story without showing anything. These cards also give some information about the background of the story, specifically about what Dostoevsky wanted to show in the story.

These cards might have been placed simply to give confused audiences a bit of an explanation of the story, or they simply may have served as easy ways to advance the plot and cut time from the finished film.

These titles disappear later into the first part and are not present at all during the second part.

One of the titles during the first part describes Dostoevsky's intentions for the "idiot" character Kameda.

The title card says that Dostoevsky wanted the Kameda character to be a pure soul, so he made him an "idiot".

Although Kameda can be quite socially awkward at times, he is hardly incapable of functioning in modern society.

Kameda might be likened to someone from the past coming into the present. While they might be unaware of contemporary society norms and intricacies, they would no doubt still be able function.

Throughout the film Kameda is both ridiculed and almost sanctified because of his illness.

People often call him an idiot or similar names. They often talk to him as if he were not in the same room. They make fun of him or scold him when he innocently breaks a rule they believe is common knowledge, like when he buys red carnations that, unbeknowst to him, symbolize love.

On the other hand he is often praised as well. Akama on several occasions calls him a lamb, and Nasu refuses to marry him because she does not want to tarnish his innocence.

Visually The Idiot contains only a few memorable shots. The first comes when Kameda and Akama first get to Hokkaido. Shot in almost newsreel like fashion and most likely with a long lens, Kurosawa shows us a montage of the snow-covered Japanese city.

The shots work perfectly to establish the setting and to place the audience in the world of the film.

The two other sequences are quite similar. Kurosawa uses several close-up shots to capture the extremely emotional confrontations during two separate parts of the film.

The first occurs when Nasu arrives at Kayama's house and meets his family.

The second is when Ayako confronts Nasu. Nasu tells Kameda to choose between them and a standoff begins. The sequence is made that much more powerful by the frighteningly intense expression on Nasu's (Setsuko Hara) face.

The film is, in the end, far more character driven than plot driven. Despite the petty romantic quarrels that surround the film, at its core is the story of how one innocent man is corrupted by society.

In the end everyone by Kameda seems like the crazy ones. Ayako says it perfectly in her final speech, almost pleading with the audience when she says, "If only we could all love as he did." She then calls herself the idiot.

The film is one of the darkest for Kurosawa, not only because of its subject matter but also in terms of its photography.

Akama's house is incredibly dark, reflecting his personality. Kameda even tells him this when he comes to visit. Kameda frequently calls people out and speaks frankly about them.

In Akama he sees darkness; in Nasu he sees a great deal of pain. What he sees in Nasu contributes greatly to Kameda's love for her.

Kameda tells Ayako that he often wants to take the place of a person in pain.

But by the end it seems that even Nasu is beyond recovery. She drapes herself in black, looking almost like Death himself.

The subject matter was perfect for a director with the sensibilities of Kurosawa. His humanist attitudes most certainly influenced this film.

Throughout his films there seems to be an overwhelming love for those who are rejected or looked down upon in society. As a child Kurosawa himself was thought to be a bit slow.

In The Idiot these feelings not only manifest themselves in the form of Kameda, but also of Akama's elderly mother. His mother prays quietly and serves the men tea. Not surprisingly, she takes a liking to Kameda. She smiles sweetly, never saying a word, and watches as the men eat the cake offering she has prepared.

They say Dostoevsky does not translate well to the screen, but if one person could do it, it would and should have been Kurosawa.

It is an incredibly powerful film that, like many of Kurosawa's, is very reflective of the present despite its age.

It is a shame the original cut of the film is not lost, otherwise what is now considered a lesser masterpiece in the Kurosawa repertoire might have ended up a first-rate masterpiece.

Rashomon (1950)


After Scandal, Kurosawa was asked by the Japanese studio Daiei to direct a film for them.

For this project Kurosawa chose to direct a film based on a short story called "In a Grove" by Ryunosuke Akutogawa.

Kurosawa would write the script for Rashomon with Hashimoto Shinobu, who had already written a script based on the story. Kurosawa and Shinobu would later collaborate on some of Kurosawa's greatest films including Seven Samurai and Ikiru.

Because "In a Grove" was too short to make a feature film out of, Kurosawa turned to another Akutogawa story called "Rashomon".

Rashomon would be the first of two films that Kurosawa would work with one of Japan's most famous and talented cinematographers, Kazuo Miyagawa.

It would be another 10 years before they worked on another film together.

With Miyagawa at the camera, Kurosawa set out to make a film in the tradition of the silent films of the 20s.

Daiei, the company producing the film, was hesitant to allow Kurosawa to film the project, and even more angry when they discovered the cost of the Rashomon gate set.

The film, Daiei said, was too confusing.

It was not until after the failure of Kurosawa's next film, The Idiot, that Rashomon received any recognition.

Unbeknownst to Kurosawa, a Japanese representative from an Italian film company had submitted Rashomon to the Venice Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prix.

Rashomon would go on to win the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film.

This was the film the put Japanese film on the map. Its impact on both Japanese cinema and cinema as a whole cannot be overstated.


Rashomon is set in 11th century Japan during what is known as the Heian period. This era was marked by the rise of the samurai class in Japan as well as the feudal system.

The story begins at the Rashomon gate. During this period, outside the capital city of Kyoto, four gates surrounded the respective sides of the city. The Rashomon gate was one of these.

In order to escape the rain, a man takes refuge under the half-ruined gate where he finds two other men. A priest, played by Minoru Chiaki, and a woodcutter, played by Takashi Shimura.

The two men were returning from testifying at a trial surrounding the death of a samurai.

They begin to recount their tale to the third man. The sort of side story of these men is what is known as a frame story. Another well-known example of this would be Forrest Gump recalling his life story at a bus stop.

The main story of Rashomon has to do with the rape of a samurai's wife, and the murder of the samurai that follows.

This story is told at the trial by the priest, the bandit Tajomaru, the wife of the samurai, the samurai himself speaking through a medium, and finally the woodcutter.

Each story has its own unique differences, and in the end we never do find out whose story is true, but that isn't the point.

The main point of the story is that human beings have a universal weakness. Everyone lies to make themselves look better. But some, as the film shows, are able to redeem themselves.


The mood of Rashomon is set up from the very first frame of the film. It is not established through the use of any dialogue or characters, but by the weather.

Kurosawa was a big fan of rain. In fact, when Kurosawa met one of his idols, John Ford, the first thing he said to him was, "You really like rain."

In Rashomon, the bleak mood of the majority of the film is established right away. At the end of the film, when the priest's faith in humanity is restored, the rain stops, the somber tone gives way to uplifting hope.

Throughout the film, Kurosawa invites the audience to make their own assertions as to what is true and what is not about the story. In all his films, Kurosawa has said, he wants the audience to create their own idea about the meaning of a film. Not one interpretation is correct, he felt.

Kurosawa places the audience in this position using a relatively simple technique. During the scenes at the trial, where the witnesses describe their versions of the events through flashbacks, Kurosawa places the camera directly in front of them, right where the magistrate would be sitting.

He is, in effect, placing the audience in the role of the judge.

Although Kurosawa pointed the camera at the sun once before in Stray Dog, Rashomon cinematographer Kazou Miyagawa is credited with the "first" use of the technique that was considered taboo at the time. It's effect in Rashomon is far more important as well.

During the infamous scene, the woodcutter is walking through the woods. The sun is barely visible through the dense trees.

Kurosawa wanted this entrance into the woods to be a metaphor for the human soul, where nothing is for certain. People can easily lose themselves in a forest, and just as easily within their own souls.

Kurosawa's play of light and shadow throughout the film supports this.

Director Robert Altman describes it well in an interview he did about Rashomon when he says that as moviegoers, we take what we see on screen to be truth, but because the story of Rashomon is told over and over again in different ways, we never know what to take as truth.

Because the main theme of the film is that every human being will embellish to make themselves look better, each character that recounts their story tells a slightly different version of the event, beginning with the notorious bandit Tajomaru (played brilliantly by Toshiro Mifune).

Tajomaru at times seems more like a wild animal than a human being. He hunches down like an animal, scratches like dog, hisses like an snake, and laughs like a hyena. This portrayal was thanks to Kurosawa who, after seeing a film with a lion, told Mifune he wanted him to act like the lion.

In Tajomaru's story, he portrays himself as a fearless warrior, a cunning trickster, and a lover that can make a married woman melt into his arms even though he is raping her.

The fight that ensues between Tajomaru and the samurai is told in favor of Tajomaru as well. Tajomaru constantly taunts the samurai, who appears weaker and less skilled than he.

At the trial, Tajomaru again talks himself up, claiming that no man had ever crossed blades with him so many times.

In a shot that echoes the westerns of John Ford, Tajomaru is seen in silhouette from a distance, fleeing victorious from the crime he has committed.

At the trial he claims that he was captured not because he was overpowered by another individual, but because he drank some bad water and became sick.

The next story is told by the samurai's wife. In her version, her guilt about what had happened shows. She begs her husband not to look at her the way he does, and to kill her for what she's done.

In the end she says she fainted, and when she came to her husband was dead.

Next is the story told by the medium in an incredibly intense scene at the courtyard trial. With the wind howling, the medium recounts the samurai's tragic tale, as told by him from beyond the grave.

The samurai, it seems, is incredibly ashamed of his wife for what happened. He claims that his wife pleaded with Tajomaru to kill him, but Tajomaru turns on her and asks the samurai what he should do with her.

After his wife escapes, Tajomaru returns empty handed and cuts the samurai loose. Because of what has just happened, he does what any honorable samurai would do, he kills himself.

The final story is told by the woodcutter, who previously said he merely happened to come across the samurai's dead body. It turns out he was there all along.

In his story, the two men fight each other, but both are portrayed as weak and cowardly. They constantly trip and fall and flail about as they attempt to kill one another.

Finally, when it seems that all faith in the human soul is lost, an abandoned baby is found in the back of the gate.

After the man who came to the gate at the beginning of the film leaves after rightly accusing the woodcutter of stealing a valuable dagger from the scene of the crime, the priest and the woodcutter are left in silence.

Kurosawa uses several fades that signify the passage of time. After the final fade it is clear the men have spent a considerably amount of time in silence.

Finally, the woodcutter, seeking to redeem himself, decides to take the baby, restoring the priests faith in the human soul.

Kurosawa ends the picture with a glimmer of optimism. Man can redeem himself after all.

Even though it is a period picture, the theme of Rashomon is universal. Many of Kurosawa's period films take on this same quality.

This would be the film that would start Kurosawa's increasing interest in the individual, and the intricacies of the human soul.