Akira Kurosawa imbued Japan’s cinematic golden age with a distinct western zeal, underpinning his samurai epics (such as Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, and Ran) with a visual, thematic language that took more from the American Western and Shakespeare than from his own nation’s storytelling tradition. Concocting a spellbinding mixture of the West and the East that endures to this day as a pinnacle of cinematic composition and epic storytelling. As a result, the cinema of Kurosawa has become synonymous with transformative transposition, ushering in a cinematic dialogue and tradition around eastern interpretations of classic western works. However, rarely does that relationship become reciprocal, wherein the western cinematic form attempts to transpose a markedly eastern vision onto its own storied canvas, and in doing so, revel in a new form of storytelling universality.
Ikiru, in its contemporary melancholy, is wholly distinct from the grander, more violent historical fiction that has come to define the word “Kurosawa-Esque”. It juts out from his filmography while not being as easily recognizable, caught in a rare filmic liminality. Yet, the 1952 drama’s pensive look at legacy and the fleeting, almost inconsequential things on which it can be built has nonetheless permeated the cinematic canon. Its single image of a dying government bureaucrat (played legendarily by Takashi Shimura) singing while he sits on a swing set he helped build, has captured many a film lover’s heart and mind— Including director Oliver Hermanus and screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro with Living.
While that timeless image and the film’s broader artfulness are heavily borrowed and relied upon in Living, there is still so much striking beauty to behold, especially at the hand of Bill Nighy’s transcendent, wonderfully somber performance.
Living, set in 1950’s London, is more a period piece than a portrait of modernity like Ikiru was, in which its classically stylized title card, warmly tinted colour palette, and shrunken aspect ratio lovingly realize and reinforce, even employing wipe edits directly evocative of the Japanese master himself. Where Kurosawa found poetry in the bustling, unyielding noise of city life, Hermanus and cinematographer, Jamie D. Ramsay, find in the ceaseless swarm of straphanger footsteps, framed in enveloping wides and stifling close-ups that tragically showcase their ability to erode and ultimately consume a life.
Nighy’s central bureaucrat, Mr. Williams, is dying of stomach cancer. After spending the better part of his life in the monotonous thrall of endless (and meaningless) paperwork at the London County Hall, the only answer he can muster to the act of enjoying life is “I don’t know how” to. The diagnosis plunges Mr. Williams into a search for existential solace, which he finds not with his married son, who he notes “has his own life” but on a drunken night at a seaside resort with a new, fleeting friend (Tom Burke, wittily channeling a learned louche) and his young, cheery co-worker, Ms. Harris (played sparklingly by Aimee Lou Wood), who worries he’s developing a worrisome infatuation.
Their dynamic is reflective of the film itself, at once playful, jubilant, and beautifully elegiac, the two make it all too easy to become deeply immersed in its commentary on life and legacy— even though the film leans too heavily on Kurosawa’s original vision. As Mr. Williams continues to seek meaning in his seemingly vacant home, softly lit lunchrooms, and London’s snowy alcoves, the sublime use of negative space and reflections poignantly convey the incompleteness of a life un-lived and the pain of staring at what little is left of it.
Though Ikiru is the more visually powerful experience, Living still awes with its subtly moving compositions, using symmetrical framing, Dutch angles, and hazy filters to a profound effect. Tapping into a contemplative vein that laments how much of life is spent in the flux of obligation (economic or otherwise), fixating on the past and future with very little regard to the present, and the very gift its namesake denotes. Couple this with a moving score, that reverberates with each wistful chord, and Living is an experience that almost stands toe-to-toe with its source material.
Yet, what equals (and perhaps surpasses) the original is the film’s greatest weapon: Bill Nighy. In a career best-performance, he manifests as an impenetrable persona who’s flush with dormant, searing emotion. His austere, weathered face contains a world of sorrow, regret, and anguish, manifesting as the epitome of a blade dulled by both time and futility. Reveling in an almost ethereal calm, his muted, but wholly emotive journey propels Living into a domain very few works have the power to enter. Mr. Williams represents the perfect culmination of his career, being both cathartic and movingly subtle.
Though firmly in the colossal shadows of Kurosawa, Living’s ability to uplift and stir is never compromised, flourishing in a space few remakes ever graze. Though Hermanus and company will have to settle for second place, it’s still a position that is resplendent with grace and beauty.
– Prabhjot Bains