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Living: Kazuo Ishiguro’s ode to Akira Kurosawa

The novelist’s moving new film draws on a Japanese master for its portrait of terminal Englishness.

By David Sexton

Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, made in 1952, remains one of the great films of all time. It was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella The Death of Ivan Ilych, about a judge who dies at the age of 45 and during his final illness realises that both his family and professional lives have been meaningless, leaving only his memories of childhood as anything good. But Kurosawa and his collaborators radically recast the story.

Ikiru (“To Live”) presents us with a Tokyo bureaucrat, Kanji Watanabe, who, since the death of his wife, has spent the last 30 years shuffling paper. When he learns that he has stomach cancer and will die in a few months, he makes a last ditch attempt to act. He pushes through a work project he has been deliberately stalling until now, the replacement of an area of polluted wasteland with a children’s playground. The film suddenly moves forward five months to Watanabe’s wake, at which his uncaring family and selfish colleagues chatter about his inexplicable transformation into a man of action in his last days. Only the women behind the playground scheme truly mourn him.

Ikiru is masterfully told from the off, when we see an X-ray of Watanabe’s cancer while a sarcastic voice-over tells us “our hero” hasn’t really been alive for years anyway. The cinematography throughout is extraordinarily expressive. But what makes the film unforgettable is the astonishingly emotive and physical performance of Takashi Shimura as Watanabe: so terrified, so desperate and confused, so much in pain, slumped, hunched up and bowed over, equally graphic both in gross body language and the most minute facial expressions, his voice coming from beyond the grave.

Hollywood has taken much from Kurosawa – and Steven Spielberg long projected a remake of Ikiru, perhaps with Tom Hanks to star. Instead, here is Living, an independent British production, born from a casual meeting between the producer Stephen Woolley, the writer Kazuo Ishiguro and the actor Bill Nighy.

Ishiguro, who first saw Ikiru on British TV as a boy, says his approach to life was “informed by the message in that film”. In retrospect its influence is obvious in several of his novels, in which people come to realise too late that their lives have been wasted (notably Stevens the butler in The Remains of the Day). Now he has honoured that debt by effectively converting Kurosawa’s film into an Ishiguro novel carried on by other means: a good one too.

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In its day, Ikiru was fiercely contemporary, a critique of current Japanese government and society. Ishiguro has made Living a period piece, though, setting it in London in 1953, a now more or less mythical past, with an ambience lovingly recreated by its designers. So far from being any kind of update, it’s the reverse. There are other distancings and softenings: there’s no derisive voice-over (Ishiguro doesn’t do omniscient narrators) and it’s much less factually harsh about cancer.

The greatest change, however, is in the conception and performance (same thing, since the part was written with Bill Nighy in mind) of the hero. Nighy (an elegantly emaciated 72, in contrast with the rubbery Shimura, in his mid-40s) makes Mr Williams the epitome of the supposed English gentleman: formal, polite, reserved, stiffly correct, self-deprecating, restrained to the point of self-obliteration. It’s a great minimalist performance by Nighy, making the smallest escape of emotion significant – and it works because you know just how quirky and scene-stealing Nighy can be when not thus repressed.

Living is deliberately less dynamic than Ikiru, too, exquisitely shot, cinematographer Jamie Ramsay making sumptuous use of colour and shade, and almost reverently directed by Oliver Hermanus (best known for Moffie, his 2019 film about a gay conscript enduring brutal army training in apartheid South Africa, this is his first work elsewhere).

Living is beautiful and moving in its own right but it doesn’t have the power of Ikiru (which remains available: not only are archive films now readily streamable but we can watch them on larger home-screens that don’t entirely traduce cinema). No matter: it’s still a lovely, sorrowful piece of work. As a tribute, a translation by Ishiguro of a Japanese master into terminal Englishness, it’s more or less perfect.

This article was originally published on 02 November 2022.

[See also: Sidney review: What Sidney Poitier stood for]

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This article appears in the 02 Nov 2022 issue of the New Statesman, The Meaning of Rishi Sunak