Akira Kurosawa, 1952
Ikiru is a dark comedy about a man who finds out he has only a few months left to live. I think I can get away with calling it a kind of La Dolce Vita meets The Apartment meets It's a Wonderful Life. It is like La Dolce Vita in its critique of the ideas and lifestyle of the 1950s intelligentsia. We learn from this film that "Beat" was a truly international phenomenon, as our hero finds himself (to his surprise) in a variety of the seediest Tokyo dives and clubs. Where the protagonist of La Dolce Vita is never able to escape his endless treadmill of trivial nights, however, Ikiru's Watanabe-san is able to find something else to do with his limited time.
Ikiru is like The Apartment in its merciless parody of bureaucracy and the world of work. Two of the best sequences in the movie come at the beginning and the end of the film. The first is a long, absurd montage of citizens being directed pointlessly from office to office at city hall,none of the bureaucrats they encounter even slightly interested in their complaint. The second is the long denouement of the movie, a funeral at which many of the same bureaucrats slowly drink themselves into a maudlin stupor, recklessly making resolutions to become better public servants that they will clearly never keep. These scenes are razor-sharp send-ups of the bureaucratic (or, the same thing, corporate) lifestyle, at the same time unfairly simplistic but also funny because they are true.
Ikiru is like It's a Wonderful Life in that it celebrates idealism and an ordinary life lived in service to the community. It champions the idea that one person really call make a difference if they roll up their shirtsleeves and give it their all. Obviously, it gets a little treacly. But it isn't too bad; both the protagonist's moral redemption and what he is able to achieve with his end game are plausible and kept in reasonable perspective. It's actually kind of inspiring.
Plot: A very boring man discovers, or at least comes to believe, that he will soon die of cancer. He experiments with various methods of trying to squeeze the most possible life out of his final months before hitting on one that works.
Visuals: Very nicely filmed in black and white, with strong use of contrast and many memorable images. There are a fair number of funny visual tricks as well, where changing camera angles or widening shots show us that characters are in somewhat different situations than we thought they were.
Dialogue: In Japanese. This is another movie where every line is efficient in both advancing the story and showing us something about the character who speaks it. Usually, we are learning something about the character that the character doesn't know about him or herself. Ikiru is a deeply ironic film.
Prognosis: If you like Kafka -- or if you are like me, and suspect you would like Kafka even though you've never read anything but that story about the guy who turns into a bug -- you'll probably really like Ikiru. As a movie about a man dying, it is not the most upbeat story ever filmed. It's rather sad, really. But it is underlain with a sharp wit, and its parodies of life and work in 1950s Japan can still hold their own in 2000s America. Or wherever you happen to live.