Ikiru (1952) by Akira Kurosawa

A terminal diagnosis sharpens the attention of an elderly council worker, leading him to question what his life has been for. Mr. Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) is section head at the public liasons office of the city council. His life is one of endless drudgery, filling out forms, stamping documents, and overly bureaucratic systems that never seem to accomplish anything important. A widower, Watanabe lives with his son, Mitsuo (Nobuo Kaneko) and his wife, whose only consideration is how his pension money may help them buy their own house. After receiving a diagnosis of stomach cancer and realising he has perhaps only 6 months left, Watanabe is understandably distraught, considering suicide, when he has a chance encounter with an author (Yunosuke Ito). This younger man shows him the delights of the city, playing his ‘Mephistopheles’ for the night as he introduces him to the joys of gambling, drinking and women. Watanabe also begins a relationship with his younger female co-worker Toyo (Miki Odagiri), whose joie de vivre contrasts starkly with his own dreary existence. Inspired by her, and still grasping for purpose, Watanabe returns to work and sets about pushing through citizens proposals for a children’s play park.

“Ikiru”, written and directed by Akira Kurosawa, who worked on the screenplay with Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, is a perfectly balanced human drama, creating a timeless character in Watanabe. He is a man who finds himself in a familiar position, having given 25 years of his life to a job that he has little personal interest in, for a son who seems not to care for him, while doing little for himself. The stomach cancer, while a tragic occurence, spurs him to action. The central performance by Takashi Shimura is wonderfully nuanced, as he copes with feelings of fear, regret, and loneliness, balanced by occasional levity and a hard-headed determination that grows with the acceptance of his morality. The supporting cast play off him excellently, never detracting from his struggle, but offering a reflective mirror through which to see Watanabe. Shimura’s Watanabe looks to them for some sort of answer to his question of what he should be doing with the short time he has left. Each has their own perspective, showing that there are no easy answers for Watanabe, but at the same time they encourage him to see the value of pursuing something meaningful to him. The story is told with ample use of montages, giving a sense of a bustling world and creating a fully rounded character in Watanabe. In his relationship with Toyo and Mitsuo, we see the various aspects that make up a person, and in the later flashbacks as his colleagues remember him we get a similar sense of his character. In Watanabe’s final moments, we also see the importance of personal happiness, in fulfilling something you know is worthwhile, in spite of what others say about you, or whether you receive credit for it.

Kurosawa’s direction with cinematographer Asakazu Nakai produces some incredibly evocative moments, with the sillhouetted figures on the bridge, the office that is creaking under the weight of piled papers reflecting the enormity of concepts such as time and mortality. The script avoids unnecessary exposition, instead focussing on the human reactions to tragedy. Watanabe never explicitly states why he changed his opinion on life, or suddenly found a second wind, but it is made clear through Shimuras performance and his encounters with the other characters. Toyo showing him the children’s toy her factory makes is another great example of the film guiding us through visually and emotionally, as well as his nickname is ‘The Mummy’, which needs no further explanation. A stunning rumination on mortality and humanity that has an inspiring message for viewers depsite the seemingly depressing themes. The title of the film says it clearest, this is not a film about dying, but about living.

Godzilla (1954) by Ishiro Honda

Following a nuclear test at sea several vessels sink beneath the waves, consumed in flames. On the nearby Odo island, people begin to talk about a legendary creature, Godzilla, who has been woken by the testing of these weapons and will return to wreak havoc. Paleontologist Dr. Yamane (Takashi Shimura) sets out to investigate the island and they soon come face-to-face with the gargantuan Jurassic-era lizard that they name Godzilla. After its first destructive incursion onto land, the government establish an Anti-Godzilla task force to develop some means of killing the creature. Meanwhile, the fiancé of Yamane’s daughter, the brilliant scientist Dr. Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata) may have created a weapon capable of bringing down the monster. However, worries about the implications of this devastating device cause him to hesitate.

“Godzilla” is a thrilling action film and political drama, centred on the mysterious titular monster. There is a love triangle subplot involving Yamane’s daughter Emiko (Momoko Kochi), Serizawa, and Ogata (Akira Takarada) whose salvage ships were destroyed in the first contact; but for the most part the film is focussed on the monster and the devastation it causes. The script builds anticipation of Godzilla’s first appearance, showing the panic caused by the sinking of the two ships, and the disbelief of officials when they discover the true cause. After the first sighting of Godzilla the film is a fast-paced action film, with one-sided firefights between the military and Godzilla, people fleeing in terror as the city falls around them, and a growing sense of dread at the realisation that this creature might never be stopped. The film uses miniatures and trick-photography to give a sense of the scale of Godzilla as we see him rampaging through the streets, or peering over the top of mountains. Haruo Nakajima and Katsumi Tezuka put on the monster suit to play Godzilla and do a great job of making the creature into a real character as opposed to simply a foil for the human protagonists. While his motivations are unclear, you get a sense of sentience and purpose to his actions. The film also features a large cast of extras, with the crowds of government officials, and the inhabitants of Odo and Tokyo, emphasising the scale of the monster and the believability of the situation. “Godzilla” draws on earlier monster movie imagery, such as the packed laboratory of Dr. Serizawa where he is busy creating some terrifying new weapon; and also on war films, with the enemy being replaced by a giant monster. The score by Akira Ifukube is similarly infused with elements of horror, with heavy pounding drums, and gung-ho action themes.

Ishiro Honda’s “Godzilla” is a metaphor for the death and devastation caused by nuclear weapons. At several points throughout the film, the atomic bomb and Nagasaki are mentioned explicitly. The story has a strong anti-war, anti-nuclear message, with the scientists being uncertain about creating an incredibly powerful weapon even in the face of this great peril. We see how people, the government and scientists react when faced with a threat and a difficult choice. One of the most touching scenes is of the high-school students singing for peace, particularly poignant considering this film was released almost a decade following the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There is also a definite critique of modernisation and the loss of traditional respect for nature. The scene in which Odo island is battered by a fierce storm suggests a reading of Godzilla as the revolt of nature against man’s destructive tendencies. Whether a metaphor for ecological destruction or nuclear terror, Godzilla gives a dire warning to humans that we are far from the most powerful force on earth and might easily trigger an extinction level even. Worth watching for the incredible action and poignant storytelling, “Godzilla” uses the monster movie genre to deliver a powerful message for future generations.

Seven Samurai (1954) by Akira Kurosawa

A small farming village in feudal Japan is facing starvation as their crops are being taken by bandits. They set out to look for samurai who they can hire to protect them. The first Kanbei (Takashi Shimura), recruits five more, and they are later joined by the unusual Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a commoner who claims to be a samurai. Together they return to the village to defend it from the bandits.

The film is epic in scope with many characters and situations to explore. The plot is relatively straight-forward, but beautifully executed and, despite a long running time, it holds the viewer’s interest throughout. Akira Kurosawa’s direction is instrumental in creating a sense of momentum and the expert composition of shots would inspire filmmakers for generations to come. The music by Fumio Hayasaka is tense and dramatic and used sparingly. There are many scenes where the painting-like shots are left to be appreciated in silence. The cast all do a superb job, Toshiro Mifune again proves to be Kurosawa’s muse, having many hilarious moments in the comic role of Kikuchiyo. Takashi Shimura as the leader of the group, who must gather together this gang of seven to defend the village, also manages to carry the sense of stoic leadership and martial prowess.

Essentially an action film, “Seven Samurai” takes its time in building up the characters and the set-pieces are far from gratuitous, being carried out with real emotion. Through the film run undercurrents of philosophical and moral concepts, with the samurai code of conduct scrutinized and the struggles and fortitude of the common man praised. A film worthy of the accolades and recognition it has received.

Rashomon (1950) by Akira Kurosawa

Escaping from a downpour, a commoner (Kichijiro Ueda) takes shelter at Rashomon gate, where he meets a wood-cutter (Takashi Shimura) and a priest (Minoru Chiaki) who are discussing a recent trial they have witnessed. The wood-cutter tells the man that as he was walking through the forest a few days before, he came across a dead samurai. The priest had earlier seen the samurai (Masayuki Mori) leading his wife (Machiko Kyo) on a horse in that direction. Later a thief Tajomaru (Toshiro Mifune) was caught with the weapons from the samurai. Tajomaru is taken to trial and tells his version of events, claiming that he did kill the samurai. They also hear the story of the wife of the samurai, which is different in points to that of Tajomaru. We also get two different version of events, with no hints as to which is correct, and all seeming to take the blame for the death of the samurai.

Based on a short story by Ryunosuke Akutagawa, the film has an interesting structure, one that would later influence many other works. Instead of being a straightforward narrative, we are instead presented, through flashbacks, with several versions of the same event, and asked to choose which one we believe or trust. This makes the film engaging, especially when you reach the third and fourth versions, as you attempt to puzzle out why they would be lying about certain things, whether you can trust the witnesses, and what the true circumstances of the murder were. Unlike other historical films, this is focussed heavily on the telling of stories, and dialogue between the major players, rather than action sequences. All the actors do a great job, particularly the three involved in the crime, as they act out the various interpretations of the scenes. Akira Kurosawa’s direction is fantastic, with the use of static cameras during the trial scenes putting you in the role of an unbiased judge as each story is told, and use of framing and movement in the flashback sequences showing you exactly what you need to see. Both the story and direction work together to create a compelling narrative, that keeps you wanting to learn more about what really happened.

The film asks some difficult questions about the nature of truth and reality, and also includes some very dark themes of murder and rape, although never graphic, and nasty characters. At the beginning of the film we see the crumbling Rashomon gate amidst a rainstorm, which acts as a perfect visual metaphor for the chaotic reality of life, and the forces of nature that act to destroy what civilisation attempts to construct. The lack of order symbolised by the gates destruction is explained as the characters tear firewood from the building, further emphasizing the necessary selfishness of humanity). A deserved classic, this film is a must watch for fans of cinema, as it inspired the way many future stories were told.