Akira Kurosawa’s impact on modern cinema has been so complete that it can feel like semantics to distinguish the fistful of direct remakes that have been made of his films (e.g. “The Magnificent Seven,” “Last Man Standing”) from the endless list of movies that have been more broadly inspired by them (e.g. “Star Wars,” Johnnie To’s “Throw Down”). The worldwide reach of the Japanese auteur’s legacy — which continues to endure more than two decades after Kurosawa’s death, and a full nine years since Zack Snyder first threatened to set a version of “Seven Samurai” in a galaxy far, far away — is a testament to both the clarity of his storytelling and the internationality of his influences.
At a time when nationalism was seen as a moral imperative, Kurosawa forged samurai epics that interpolated John Ford, spun jidaigeki out of William Shakespeare, and smelted desolate Shōwa melodramas from the stuff of Fyodor Dostoevsky. If the borderlessness of Kurosawa’s imagination led to accusations that he was “less Japanese” than contemporaries like Ozu and Mizoguchi, the universality of his films ensured that nothing about them got lost in translation. Kurosawa’s storytelling has always traveled so well that even his least famous movies seem to exert a strong influence on Western cinema in the 21st century (one favorite example: the nuclear paranoia of 1955’s “I Live in Fear” percolating beneath the prepper mania of Jeff Nichols’ “Take Shelter”).
All of which is to say that it shouldn’t be so uncanny to see Bill Nighy star in a sleepy British remake of Kurosawa’s greatest film, but “Ikiru” has always been a different beast. Whereas the director’s most frequently cited films tend to be period tales that are rooted in the legible grammar of their respective genres, this contemplative 1952 fable draws from the rich traditions of Russian literature and Hollywood melodrama without feeling like it belongs to either one of them. A simple yet knotted story about a zombie-like Tokyo bureaucrat named Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura) who finds new purpose to his time on Earth after being diagnosed with terminal stomach cancer, “Ikiru” exudes a plaintive emotional power that’s as profound as it is fleeting, and as impossible to replicate as the magic of first snow. It reminds me of “It’s a Wonderful Life” in that way, another gut-punch of a classic that has only been remade as a sad parade of TV movies that all disappeared into oblivion on the same night they were broadcast.
And yet, it’s hard to fault “Living” director Oliver Hermanus (“Moffie”) for hoping that the same bolt of lightning might strike twice halfway around the world and 68 years apart. For starters, he came to the table with a few legitimate aces up his sleeve. They include an assist from the great novelist Kazuo Ishigiruo (whose lean screenplay is suitably repressive, if also faithful to a fault), an evocative historical backdrop courtesy of London County Hall, and a cast punctuated with rising talents like Tom Burke and “Sex Education” star Aimee Lou Wood.
Even more crucially, Hermanus understood that while “Ikiru” might be the most timeless of Kurosawa’s films, that doesn’t mean it was built to last. The image of Watanabe singing to himself on that moonlit swing set (if you know you know) isn’t so indelible because it inspires you to go “fall in love before the crimson bloom fades from your lips,” but rather because it knows that his message will fade into the light of day and the chaotic bustle that comes with it. In other words, “Ikiru” is a movie that demands to be remade because it was built to be forgotten. The trouble with this new telling is that it’s never all that memorable in the first place.
For his part, Nighy is predictably affecting in the lead role of Mr. Williams, a widowed civil servant so calcified by grief that his younger employees assume that he’s actually incapable of human feeling; if they’re terrified of him in a way that no one ever was of Shimura’s version, it might be owed to the fact that Williams already speaks in the ghoulish whisper of a spirit communicating from beyond the grave (Nighy is almost 20 years older than Shimura was at the time). Every morning he boards the train into London (his underlings ride on a separate car in their own sea of pinstripes and bowler hats, all of them looking the part in Sandy Powell’s period-appropriate costumes), every day he sits perched between the paper skyscrapers in his office like a bureaucratic gargoyle, ready to pass the buck whenever a gaggle of housewives come to petition his office to turn a slum into a playground, and every night he sits alone in the dark of his son’s living room, where he’s very much an unwanted guest.
Williams’ existence is sustained by the sheer inertia of that routine, a cycle enlivened only by Jamie Ramsay’s transportively velvet cinematography. Millions of people died in the war for this. If Williams were capable of laughing, he’d probably let out a hearty chortle upon hearing the office’s newest hire (Alex Sharp) announce that he “hopes to make a difference.”
What does make a difference — at least to our dormant hero — is the news that his stomach pains are far more serious than he thought. Channeling Williams’ poker-faced restraint in a way that makes Kurosawa seem like Michael Bay by comparison, Hermanus opts against using the original’s famous X-ray shot to reveal the diagnosis, accurately teeing up an adaptation of this story in which it’s much harder to see under the protagonist’s skin. Whereas Watanabe’s mouth hung open as if to show that his soul had already been hollowed out, Williams’ upper lip is stiffer than the drink that anyone else would reach for in this situation. When he doesn’t show up for work the next day, his absence is greeted by an even mix of confusion and relief. Only Margaret (Wood), the lone woman in the office, appears concerned — she needs Williams to write her a reference letter so that she might go somewhere else.
From there, “Living” arranges itself into a parable-like portrait of personal awakening, as Williams does his best to look the part of someone who’s making the most of his time on Earth. A chance encounter with a local dilettante (Burke) leads to a rowdy night on the town, but Williams is haunted by the reflection he finds at the bottom of every bottle. Likewise, a run-in with Margaret sparks an unexpected friendship, but neither of them are honest about what they hope to gain from it. At one point, Shimura’s buzz-killing performance of the Japanese ballad “Gondola no Uta” is swapped out for Nighy’s rendition of the Scottish folk tune “Oh Rowan Tree,” a fittingly melancholic replacement that nevertheless makes it seem as if Williams is trying something he once saw in a movie. That beat is typical of a remake that’s stuck between a rock and hard place; many of the notes that Hermanus copies from Kurosawa sound like echoes, while the ones he omits (the “Happy Birthday” scene!) are all sorely missed in a remake that runs 40 minutes shorter than the original while feeling almost twice as long.
That CliffsNotes-like economy doesn’t serve this retelling of a story that relied on its length and unexpected shape in equal measure. True to “Ikiru,” this is a low-key tale that hinges on a humble act, and “Living” honors the sense of discovery engendered by its structure — as in the script Kurosawa co-wrote with Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, Ishiguro’s screenplay drops a bombshell around the halfway mark, and spends the rest of its runtime trying to make sense of the fallout. The longer “Ikiru” went on — stretching the mystery of Watanabe’s enigmatic final days into a film that nearly runs two full “Rashomons” long — the narrower its focus became on the almost imperceptible choice at its core.
“Ikiru” draws its inestimable power from the tension between the vastness of life and the smallness of what we choose to do with it (or is it the other way around?), while “Living” cuts too many corners to highlight any such disparity. The moral of this story is supposed to be shrugged off despite its overwhelming honesty, but “Living” downplays its drama to such an extent that it can feel as if Hermanus and Ishiguro lacked the nerve to attempt the same trick.
Their film — despite a cast of self-possessed actors capable of infusing fresh life into even the most undead scenes — simply nips any hints of sentimentality in the bud, denying itself even “Brief Encounter” levels of expression. There’s a different kind of tragedy to conveying the protagonist in that way, but the fact that he’s destined to be forgotten is supposed to be incidental rather than by design; Williams’ death needs to have an immediate impact before it can meaningfully fail to have a lasting one. That Kurosawa’s version gets that so devastatingly right is the reason why people remember it to this day. Of course, just because “Living” is unlikely to enjoy a similar legacy doesn’t mean that it wasn’t worth trying.