Takashi Shimura is best remembered for assembling the Seven Samurai (the Yul Brynner role). In fact he made more films with Akira Kurosawa than Toshiro Mifune, and Ikiru is his greatest performance. He plays Watanabe, a lifelong city bureaucrat, a widower with a married son, who scrambles desperately for some meaning to his existence when he is diagnosed with cancer and given only months to live. This theme has been done to death over the last half century (see The Bucket List for one of the more egregious examples) but rarely with the profundity and emotional nuance that Kurosawa finds here. This is the flip side to his samurai films, an introspective, naturalistic contemporary drama combining progressive social criticism with a universal humanist message.
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