Living Remains Relevant as It Adapts Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru

Movies Features Bill Nighy
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Living Remains Relevant as It Adapts Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru

Like many English words, “living” is a curious one. As an adjective, it can refer to the state of one’s being. To be alive, perhaps even full of vigor. Or maybe one could barely be living, just barely hanging on by a thread. As a noun, it can refer to the money one makes for performing a job. The word is employed in both senses in Oliver Hermanus’ Living, starring Bill Nighy in the central role of Mr. Williams, a taciturn bureaucrat going about his humdrum life in post-war London—except he’s not really living. Until he receives a medical diagnosis, that is.

I watched Living roughly halfway through the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. By this time of the festival, many film critics and writers are in a zombie-like state. You’ve watched so many films you’re in a daze, trying to separate the plotlines from the first film of the day to the third or fourth. You become accustomed to folding your body into those movie theater seats, figuring out slow movements to revive numb arms or legs. Stepping outside of the movie theater seems like a salubrious exercise.

I remember walking into a pretty packed theater to watch Living. Perhaps it was the still-unusual (to someone living through a pandemic) sight of so many people in a movie theater. Or maybe because I had skipped lunch. Or that I had made it into the theater in the nick of time. Either way, I was feeling anxious. I couldn’t explain it. But I’d heard this was a good film. Besides, who can resist Nighy’s on-screen antics?

Except, Nighy is rather restrained in this role as a buttoned-up civil servant in the Public Works Department in London’s City Hall. In a charmingly choreographed opening, we hear about Mr. Williams through his colleagues, schooling the new hire Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp). He’s described as a “bit like church.” The men, all dressed in suits and bowler hats, offer up a short laugh and tight smiles. When Nighy arrives on screen moments later, you barely hear him speak above a whisper, offering up no more than pithy observations or a furrowed brow. He’s been working at the same desk for decades, and his job is usually to merely move piles of files filled with futile paperwork around.

Then he receives a medical diagnosis. Mr. Williams is dying. He responds to the grave news with a circumspect, “Quite.” However, the death sentence changes something in Mr. Williams. And he attempts to make his last days of life matter. He carouses around with a bon vivant (Tom Burke) after a chance meeting. He enjoys the company of his cheerful former colleague Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), envious of her zest for life. And then he takes on a project that he had more or less papered over at work, leaving everyone marveling at his turnaround. What happened to Mr. Williams?

Living is an exquisitely handsome film, written by novelist Kazuo Ishiguro. It brings 1950s London alive in a such a genteel way that the viewer is bathed in its gorgeousness, even as Mr. Williams and his colleagues push paper around, or Mr. Williams attempts to make small talk with his son. And so when Mr. Williams does manage to see the project he’d undertaken through, the film suggests a small victory in the middle of tedium. Its ending offers up a glimmer of hope, even if there are elements of pragmatism to temper matters.

By the time the credits rolled, my anxiety had left me. I was taken in by Nighy’s turn as Mr. Williams, playing the role with a weathered charm. It felt like a balm of a film, and immediately made me seek out the original that inspired it: Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru.

Part of the Criterion Collection, Ikiru is available to watch on Kanopy, which can be accessed through your public library. It tells a far more terse and bleak story, putting forth a far more potent questioning of human existence. Although Hermanus and Ishiguro remained true to the original film, which in turn was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Living is more of a considerate appraisal of a mundane life.

In Ikiru, a monotonous narrator introduces us to Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura)—or rather the stomach cancer that’s plaguing him. We learn that Watanabe has been stamping his seal on documents at his bureaucratic office for 30 years—that he might as well be dead, because he certainly isn’t living. He rarely speaks. When he does, his voice is hoarse.

Shimura’s long face is not as wrinkled as Nighy’s, but appears more gaunt. When he gets the diagnosis at the doctor’s office, his eyes widen in surprise. It’s because the doctor doesn’t tell him the real cause for Watanabe’s physical discomfort. But Watanabe knows he’s dying, and the doctor’s attempt to ease his mind doesn’t help him.

Watanabe doesn’t want to die, but he doesn’t know how to live. He goes carousing at Tokyo bars, meets with his young, female colleague before he finally figures it out: He will take on the project of the children’s playground. Living significantly alters the third act of the film. We physically see Nighy overseeing the project. In Ikiru, Watanabe’s efforts are recounted by his colleagues in flashback at a funerary memorial—an attempt to understand the sudden change in his temperament. There is a constant questioning of Watanabe’s motives, even when the facts are staring people right in the face.

Compared to Living, Ikiru’s third act is quite striking. The declarative nature of the Japanese language, along with the alternatively drunken and somber recollections by Watanabe’s colleagues give the impression of an extended farce. Watanabe’s colleagues are able to eventually puzzle out his mysterious behavior, and loudly proclaim their own desire to follow in his footsteps—but the audience knows the truth. In the end, nothing will change. Things will go back to the way they always were.

Made in 1952, the black-and-white cinematography lends to Ikiru’s stark look at the meaning of life and death. The scratchy, ponderous soundtrack lends it gravitas. Older film techniques such as wipe transitions are used to great effect, showcasing the futility of a place like City Hall.

Ikiru is certainly of its time, yet its story is timeless. While we may have replaced stacks of paper with multitudes of tabs and folders on our computers, people continue to struggle with bureaucratic nightmares. We find ourselves mindlessly following routines, until we blink one day and realize that time is passing us by. We might watch others live their lives on social media, while feeling stuck in our own—even though we fully understand how real life has been filtered through in those Instagram moments.

If Hermanus had decided to transpose Living to 70 years after the original, it might have worked just as well as its post-war setting. But there is a simplicity to Ikiru, and in turn Living, which feels even more relevant than being in the present day. It’s as if we’re being reminded that these lessons have always been around, but we must wake up from our reverie to realize them.

Aparita Bhandari is an arts and life reporter in Toronto. Her areas of interest and expertise lie in the intersections of gender, culture and ethnicity. She is the producer and co-host of the Hindi language podcast, You can find her on Twitter. Along with Bollywood, Toblerone bars are one of her guilty pleasures.