Here's an experience I've had a number of times: I'll feel that I need to read a "classic" 19th Century/early 20th Century novel, I'll pick up a copy, get almost overwhelmed by how daunting I imagine reading it will be, jump in anyway, and end up being surprised at how non-daunting - how engaging, interesting, pleasurable, and, even, yes, fun - the book actually is. (The big example is The Magic Mountain). At this point, I should know better, but I may be suffering from a kind of intellectual hangover from my grad school days, where we all tried to keep concepts like engagement, interest, pleasure, and fun out of any arts and culture discussion.
Anyway, Ikiru was one of the few Kurosawa movies I had never seen and I think I was avoiding it for similar reasons to why I was initially wary of starting something like The Magic Mountain: I knew it was a serious classic, that it dealt - directly - with Big Themes (what does "living" really mean?), and that it was widely-praised by film critics and scholars who tended to write about it using a reverential tone.
I finally watched it this week and it was The Magic Mountain experience all over again. My expectations of a stuffy, fussy masterpiece were dashed within the first minute. This is a Big Theme movie, but Kurosawa's handling is sharp and specific, and the movie has an ironic tone that keeps the sentimentality inherent in the material at bay. It's like a more somber, more cynical, but, because of that, more spiritual version of a Frank Capra movie. Kurosawa isn't selling anything like Capra is in It's a Wonderful Life, although, as I was watching Ikiru, that was the movie I kept thinking of. (They're both, after all, about "little" men, facing death, looking for meaning in their life.)
A couple of other thoughts:
- I've always felt that, while it's definitely a masterpiece, Rashomon is a little stuffy. (I've always described it to friends as the favorite movie of English Lit. Profs). What's so neat about Ikiru is how Kurosawa takes the overt, in your face device of Rashomon - differing perspectives on the same event - and brings it to bear much more subtly. I.e., the way that different characters - and, at times, the audience - aren't able to get a handle on Watanabe's motivations.
- Shimura's performance is amazing. He has one of the most intense non-presences I've ever seen in a movie. I love that in the last act, once Watanabe has started taking action and giving meaning to the life he has left, Shimura does absolutely nothing physically to mark this change. Watanabe remains his small, unimpressive, cowering self. His drive, determination, and spiritual rebirth are almost completely conveyed through Kurosawa's use of close-ups.
- There are so many great sequences in the film, but if I had to choose a favorite: the shot where Watanabe is walking out of the hospital in silence, seemingly all alone. He steps into the street, almost into the path of an oncoming truck, and the sound comes back in as the camera pulls out to reveal the busy city life all around him. It's a showy moment, but also one full of poignancy and real insight into how people deal with awful news.
- I'm glad I waited to see this movie (even if some of my reasons for waiting were kind of silly). There was a time when I tried to see at least one movie a day (and sometimes managed to get through three or four), and I'd go through the film canon, checking off things that I "needed" to see. Nowadays, I kind of regret the rate at which I consumed Kurosawa, Altman, and Hawks movies, because, now, there are few left that will ever be new to me. Also, I think I have a greater capacity to appreciate a movie like Ikiru than I did seven years ago. (I'm not joking when I talk about saving Bergman for when I'm older.) And I like that I have a whole week to sit and think about this movie before I put the next classic into the DVD player.