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How should we be 'Living'? Kurosawa and Ishiguro tackle the question, 70 years apart

Updated March 7, 2023 at 9:59 AM ET

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan in 1954 but moved with his family to Britain when he was 5 years old. He, of course, grew up to become one of the world's most renowned writers in the English language, winning the Booker Prize, the Nobel Prize in Literature, and a Knighthood.

But one of his earliest and most enduring artistic influences was a late-night television broadcast of a black and white Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa called Ikiru.

Shot in Japan in the early 1950s, it's an existential and philosophical film about an aging Tokyo bureaucrat who receives a terminal cancer diagnosis. The illness sets off an internal journey as the film's central character examines the choices he's made and decides to live more fully. What was for Kurosawa in part a critique of postwar Japanese bureaucracy and workaholism became for Kazuo Ishiguro a formative guide to living.

"One of the things about the original Japanese film that really appealed to me," he explains, "it emphasizes the fact that you can't rely on the applause of the wider world to tell you whether you've lived well or not. Public acclaim may be nice to have, but ultimately, it's not worth very much. It's treacherous, fickle, it's usually wrong... you've got to take a lonely private view of what is success and failure for you. I think that is what it's saying. You've got to try and find a meaning that's within yourself, and I found that quite inspiring."

Akira Kurosawa's film <em>Ikiru</em> came out in 1952
/ Courtesy of the Criterion Collection
/
Courtesy of the Criterion Collection
Akira Kurosawa's film Ikiru came out in 1952

Ishiguro says his most widely-read novels, The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go were each influenced in part by Ikiru, as his fictional characters are jolted awake, suddenly attuned to the limits of time and their mortality.

Now seventy years after Ikiru was released, Ishiguro has earned his first Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay for his new film Living.

Instead of a remake, Living transplants the story of Ikiru from postwar Tokyo to 1950s London where the writer himself arrived as a young boy – a city of top hats, public bureaucrats, and chilling emotional reserve, recreated as a lush cinematic universe by director Oliver Hermanus. The central character is an aging government employee named Mr. Williams, played by the acclaimed British actor Bill Nighy. Just as in Ikiru, Williams receives a terminal diagnosis that sets off both a crisis and a deeply moving journey to catharsis. Nighy's performance, with its fragile balance of pathos and kindness also earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor.

The British writer and critic Pico Iyer, who lives in Japan, and wrote the Criterion companion essay to Ikiru, says Living is a remarkable example of how Ishiguro's art bridges his many cultural identities to create work that is deeply universal. What may seem on the surface to be a simple costume drama, is infused with the spirit and the message of Kurosawa's original film, and a poignant Japanese concern with the temporary nature of things.

In <em>Living, </em>Bill Nighy stars as Mr. Williams, a bureaucrat he is told he is about to die.
Ross Ferguson / Number 9 films / Sony Pictures Classics
/
Number 9 films / Sony Pictures Classics
In Living, Bill Nighy stars as Mr. Williams, a bureaucrat who he is told he is about to die.

"I've been following Ish's work ever since it first came out 40 years ago. Famously, whenever he sets a book in Japan, it's the perfect description of the Britain of the past...whenever he sets a book like The Remains of the Day in the the Britain of the 1930s, it's a precise evocation of the Japan that's all around me" says Iyer. "I think what he's done ... is almost explode ideas of East and West, and give us something universal. In fact, I think his Living is more universal than Kurosawa's Ikiru, because it's not concerned particularly with English society or Japanese society, but much more with universal mortality."

Ishiguro says he takes heart from the idea that he is free to express his identity and his heritage not only by literally "telling stories about Japanese people who come to Britain, and do X, Y, Z... It just comes out in a certain kind of way. I have influences that come from Japanese culture, particularly Japanese cinema, that just go into the stories I tell even if on the surfaces there are no Japanese characters. Our movie Living is indeed a very Japanese film, I think in many ways, but it's also a very English film."

In what is already a landmark year for Asian actors and Asian-American nominees at the Academy Awards, Ishiguro says he is honored to be part of a robust conversation about the possibilities and the boundaries of cinema. He says unlike literary prizes, which are often singular achievements for a finished work, film awards highlight where cinema is going.

"I think basically what the award season is, is the film industry people having a discussion," he says, "about what are the values they should take forward in their work, what kinds of films should they be making, which kind of people should be exalted." He says he welcomes the range of films nominated in the Best Adapted Screenplay category at the Oscars, from the intimate story at the heart of Living to the spectacle of Top Gun: Maverick.

"What's important is... are the stories being told well, are they being told honestly, do they resort to emotional manipulation or do they actually contain something you could call some version of the truth about the way we live."

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