by David Katz
- Bill Nighy is a cancer-stricken bureaucrat in search of lost time in South African director Oliver Hermanus’ adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru
If the film industry is going to be so reliant on redeveloping old intellectual property, returning to Akira Kurosawa’s work isn’t the worst of plans. In the middle part of the last century, Kurosawa’s Japanese output became a bit of a sweet shop for Hollywood to plunder, with his reputation blooming from this cross-cultural exchange – The Hidden Fortress inspired Star Wars, leading George Lucas himself to then co-finance the Palme d’Or-winning Kagemusha.
Living, acclaimed South African director Oliver Hermanus’s remake of 1952’s Ikiru, benefits from the light form of cultural imperialism, where a slimmed-down, and more accessible, English-language version can “replace” the prior one – albeit rearranging a few things, but safely mimicking what worked so powerfully before. Still, Living, world-premiering this week at the virtual Sundance 2022, can go down as a success, and a tricky assignment aced for the rising Hermanus: it does justify its existence, and makes rewarding links between Japan’s post-World War II reconstruction and Britain’s own predicament after its “finest hour”.
Bill Nighy – heretofore famous for his gin-in-hand charity single warbling in Love Actually [+see also:
film profile] – is cast against type, or rather unearthing the melancholy that always seemed to be there, as the stone-faced civil servant Williams, Hermanus and recent Nobel-laureate screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro’s counterpart to Kurosawa’s Watanabe. Williams is given his terminal cancer diagnosis in the first act, the spur to make his final months on Earth count, after passing through his adult and professional existences as almost a silent passenger in his own life. Hermanus provides some novel, and more classically British, imagery to evoke this, as Williams and his far younger colleagues traipse austerely to work on a commuter rail platform, with black bowler hats and umbrellas their new armour, replacing the military scrubs they may have recently donned.
Otherwise, there’s a “small-c” conservative, line-toeing ethos to Ishiguro’s screenplay, where both the individual story beats of the original and its Capraesque themes of human virtue are maintained to the letter. Hermanus, however, finds enormous poise in his own contributions, incorporating the sickly colours and winking symbolism of Douglas Sirk and Noël Coward’s mid-century melodramas. If there’s an authorial signature, to level up to Kurosawa’s own mastery, it’s his facility for conveying repression, and his feel for how harsh forces can impede merely “living”. After examining the clinch of Apartheid-era racial segregation and homophobia in his past work, Hermanus finds a way to make his Ikiru mk II personal, if not as autobiographical.
In this era of nostalgic reboots, the last Star Wars was obligated to re-quote, “I have a bad feeling about this” and creakily play the old hits, and so this Kurosawa remake can’t avoid the looming probability of it ending just where you’d expect: in that snow-capped children’s playground newly built on a war ruin, the end point of Williams’ and Watanabe’s reawakening towards how they should live. Yet the lump in the throat returns, as does the sense of well-earned emotional catharsis – the same song in a distinct, complementary key signature.
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