Feb 26, 2003 at 12:00 am

Toward the beginning of Ikiru (1952), Akira Kurosawa’s rather amazing blend of sentimentality and cynicism, a narrator informs us that the hero of our story is already dead. He’s speaking metaphorically, of course, although the man in question, Mr. Watanabe (Takashi Shimura), an aging government employee who one co-worker has nicknamed “the mummy,” does seem to have given up the ghost.

After 30 years of faithful service, Watanabe has risen to the level of invisible cog, a rubber-stamper in a Kafkaesque bureaucracy that seems to have been designed to get little if anything done. He lives with his son and daughter-in-law, who barely tolerate him, and displays a highly developed sense of his own insignificance through his slow gait, permanent slump and hesitant, barely audible whisper of a voice.

It’s an insignificance that he’s learned to live with, but when he finds out he’s dying from stomach cancer and may have only a few months left to live, he slowly becomes reanimated. At first it seems as though he’s going to drown in his own self-pity, but once he latches onto a project that he feels will give his life some meaning, he turns the force of his strongest characteristic — his persistence — against the ineffectual bureaucracy where he has so long suffered in silence. And, this being a Kurosawa film, in a sense he prevails and in another sense he doesn’t.

This is a tale that could very easily (and on a few occasions does) slide into sentimental excess. But Kurosawa and his co-writer, Shinobu Hashimoto, have developed a scenario that ranges wider (the film runs 2 hours and 23 minutes) than a summary of its central story might suggest. We also get a sizable slice of post-war Japanese nightlife, a sly political satire and a nearly 50-minute-long set piece at Watanabe’s wake, which begins with rote expressions of sad respect and then, as the sake begins to flow, disintegrates into a drunken free-for-all of screaming accusations, self-chastisements and boozy grief.

Part humanist fable and part black comedy, Ikiru celebrates Watanabe’s indomitable spirit, while at the same time casting a jaundiced eye at the society around him. It’s a rich and complicated balance, anchored by Shimura’s near pantomime performance. And even when the film falters, Kurosawa’s audacity remains impressive.


Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit), Friday-Sunday. Call 313-833-3237.

Richard C. Walls writes about film for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected].