Ikiru (1952)

This study of a terminally ill civil servant seeking meaning in his life is one of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s finest achievements.

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Alternative titles

  • Doomed Alternative
  • Living Alternative


“The narrative is carefully paced, the central performance magnificent, the final effect overwhelming in a manner that recalls the great Russian writers Kurosawa admired.”
Philip French, The Observer, 2008

In the West, director Akira Kurosawa is so often associated with his samurai films and his regular lead Toshiro Mifune that other aspects of his filmography are sometimes overlooked. That’s a major injustice in the case of this deeply compassionate modern-dress character study, which is reportedly director Steven Spielberg’s favourite film.

Takashi Shimura is utterly convincing as the reserved local government functionary who’s stayed in the same job for decades by keeping his head down, yet when stomach cancer strikes he resolves to bring some meaning to an otherwise fruitless life. Scrupulously avoiding slushy sentiment, the film’s narrative structure then cleverly moves the focus to the old man’s perplexed colleagues, pertinently prompting every viewer to ponder their own contribution to the common good.

Vittorio De Sica’s Umberto D (1952) offers another affecting study of old age, as a lonely Italian retiree faces incipient penury.

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The Greatest Films of All Time 2012

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