Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Ikiru

The so-so "Ricki and the Flash" and "American Ultra" are also new to Blu-Ray this week.

The acclaimed (and deservedly so) Japanese director Akira Kurosawa is known for two things: Inspiring American westerns with his movies “The Seven Samurai” in 1954 (made into “The Magnificent Seven” in 1960) and “Yojimbo” in 1961 (made into “A Fistful of Dollars” in 1964), and being inspired by Shakespeare to create some of his own movies--“Throne of Blood” from 1957 was inspired by “MacBeth,” and “Ran” from 1985 was derived from “King Lear.” Let’s also not forget the influence his movie “The Hidden Fortress” (1958) had on George Lucas’s “Star Wars” in 1977.

Kurosawa wasn’t all about samurais, shoguns, and daimyos though. He made modern tales like the excellent police story “Stray Dog” in 1949 and the kidnapping suspense thriller “High and Low” in 1963. For those who love a good twist ending, it doesn’t get much more chilling than the final moments of “I Live in Fear” from 1955. I still get goose bumps thinking about that one. One of his modern tales, a beautiful movie from 1952 called “Ikiru,” is seeing its release on Blu-Ray this week.

“Ikiru,” which means “to live,” is an emotional powerhouse of a movie. It speaks to the transcendent nature of movies and how the best ones resonate through time regardless of their country of origin or the year they were made. If you think that a black and white Japanese movie from 1952 is too old, outdated, or foreign to make you have a deep, profound, emotional experience—think again. This is one of the most soul-baring movies ever put on screen.

The movie stars Kurosawa regular Takashi Shimura as city bureaucrat Kanji Watanabe. Watanabe is the section chief of the public affairs department of city hall. His job consists of taking papers from one large pile, stamping them, and putting them in another large pile. His work is monotonous and tedious. Watanabe scrapes by doing the bare minimum—he looks like he’s working without actually accomplishing anything at all. This is his life for the past thirty years.

Then a whopper of a revelation wakes Watanabe up. He finds out that he has stomach cancer. How he finds out is from the most pusillanimous doctor in the entire history of the medical profession, but he implicitly understands what is being told to him and he knows that he has about six months to live. It’s said that major revelations like this one reveal a lot about a person’s character. Watanabe could have called it quits, given up, and just waited to die. Instead, he does the opposite. For the first time in his life, he chooses to live.

Not a big drinker for most of his life, Watanabe decides to go on a binge. He meets an aspiring novelist (Yūnosuke Itō) and the two get to talking. Watanabe reveals to the young novelist that he is dying of cancer. The novelist wants to make sure that his new friend has a night he’ll remember before he dies. The two go bar hopping and have an adventure the likes of which Watanabe has never had before, full of booze, music, dancing, and of course, women.

This sequence goes on for a long while, as it should. What we are witnessing is Watanabe’s awakening. He is taking thirty years of suppressed joy and letting it all out in one night. The evening culminates with Watanabe singing a sad old tune in a bar. It’s a song telling young people to enjoy their lives before they are too old to do so and their time has passed. Kurosawa holds a close up shot on Shimura as he sings the song and tears well up in his eyes. Watanabe sings it out loud so all can hear, but he’s really singing it to himself. Part of it is sad and filled with regret that he did not have more fun throughout his life. The other part is inspirational and a reminder that he still has breath in his body, he did eventually make it out for an evening to enjoy his life, and he still has time left to make an impact and leave his mark on the world before he goes.

He first looks for answers by taking out a young former employee named Toyo (Miki Odagiri). In doing so, Watanabe seeks to recapture the joy of that one great evening he spent with the novelist, but he’s also looking for something more. He wants to know how to enjoy life. She seems happy, and he thinks that she can tell him how to experience the same type of joy that she has in her life. When she doesn’t have the answer that he’s looking for, he sets out to do something that will make a difference.

This is where “Ikiru” takes an interesting shift in narrative perspective. We flash forward to Watanabe’s memorial service, where family and co-workers sit around drinking way too much sake while telling stories about him. Think of it like the Japanese version of sitting shiva. Each individual who talks has a theory as to why he acted the way he acted and did what he did for the last five months of his life. Revelations are made as each person tells their tale, which contributes to a greater story that meticulously unfolds. It recalls Kurosawa’s 1950 movie (and first Japanese Best Foreign Language Oscar winner) “Rashomon” in which different people tell their versions of the same story. In “Ikiru” it’s more cut and dry, as the movie cuts to flashbacks to show us only the definitive version of events. How other people, like the shifty deputy mayor (Nobuo Nakamura), spin Watanabe’s tireless work to their benefit is a revelation all on its own.

In a career full of great movies, it’s hard to choose the greatest, but I think “Ikiru” is the one for Kurosawa. I have been a long-time admirer of Kurosawa’s work. He is one of the few directors whose movies can truly be called art. While Kurosawa certainly made movies that provided more visceral thrills, with “Ikiru” he hit on something more provocative. There are very few movies like this one. Many try to be, but they either go too far with the over-sentimentality or pull back too early before they hit the emotional sweet spot. “Ikiru” is the rare film that gets it all exactly right and is joyful, sad, tragic, hopeful, and so soulful and poetic all at the same time. The beauty, wonder, and purpose of life all summed up into one incredibly moving film about a man who learned how to live after he found out he was going to die. Buy it on Amazon here: Ikiru (The Criterion Collection) [Blu-ray].

Also New This Week

Ricki and the Flash

“Ricki and the Flash” starts off with a meta moment, at least for me. Whenever I hear Tom Petty’s “American Girl,” it immediately conjures up images of sweet, young Catherine Martin (Brooke Smith) singing along and keeping the beat on her steering wheel while driving at night in Jonathan Demme’s seminal 1991 movie “The Silence of the Lambs.” Now, twenty-four years later, Demme brings the song back as the number that Ricki (Meryl Streep) and her band sing at the beginning of “Ricki and the Flash.” I couldn’t help it. It made me smile.

The movie, written by Diablo Cody, made me smile too. Especially great is Streep’s performance as Ricki. Watching her move, I get the impression that Streep really knows this woman. Either she knows someone likes her or she knows the type. Streep is known for altering her appearance and being a master of accents, but what is under-appreciated are the little nuances, and these are what set her so far above the rest of the majority of actors. She knows every detail about Ricki, from how she’d walk and talk to how she’d hold her head to how she’d hold a glass. It’s not something we consciously pick up on, but it’s there, and it’s what draws us in to every character Streep plays.

Kudos must also be given to Rick Springfield, Kevin Kline, Mamie Gummer, and Audra McDonald for breathing vibrant life into their characters and holding their own opposite Streep. While “Ricki and the Flash” is a feel-good family drama with the tense scenes and exuberant moments you’d expect, there’s nothing wrong with that as long as it’s well done—and this is well done. Rent it.

American Ultra

For those not familiar with the inspiration for “American Ultra,” a quick Google search under the term “MK Ultra” will give you some background understanding. There are also numerous youtube videos on it. Pretty sick, right? Well, that’s the CIA for you, and awful as those things are, stuff like that does make good for juicy subject matter for a movie. Yet the filmmakers botched the job with “American Ultra,” an uneven, unfunny, unexciting—un-whatever it is trying to be—trip into the mind of a young man (Jesse Eisenberg) who was once the subject of such experiments (which allowed the CIA to “trigger” him from normal dude to assassin at its whim) and now has to save himself and his girlfriend (Kristen Stewart) from assassins sent after them by an ambitious agent (Topher Grace). After watching “American Ultra” you might just want to get some mind control to forget what you saw. Skip it.

More New Releases: “No Escape,” with Owen Wilson as an American in a foreign country who has to save himself and his family from a violent coup; “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” in which our wool-bearing friend and his pals must go on a big city adventure to save their beloved farmer; and “Eight Men Out,” fantastic dramatization of the Chicago “Black Sox” scandal of 1919, starring John Cusack and Charlie Sheen.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.

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