What is beauty for? It’s a question worth asking about Living, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru (1952) — one of the canonical greats — that swaps ’50s Japanese bureaucracy for ’50s British bureaucracy, while also swapping murk for majesty. Stunning cinematography, a lead actor of the calibre of Bill Nighy and a script by acclaimed novelist (and adept chronicler of the human condition) Kazuo Ishiguro puts Living in a very enticing place. As does its lineage; after all, Ikiru is not just one of the great films, it is a timeless tale. It is a depressingly prescient tale, one that predates Gilliam’s opus, Brazil (1985), in its portrayal of crushing, Kafakaesque bureaucracy, the kind that has only become more pertinent. It truly is the time to return to Ikiru. Therefore, I recommend anybody who has not seen Ikiru to watch Ikiru — it will resonate still. For those who have seen the original, despite undeniable cinematic beauty, there is nothing of merit to gain from Living that has not already been done better, and there is plenty that is worse. Yes, the performances are commendable, but the whole thing seems like a colossal waste of time.
To return to the beauty, the seeming key strength of Living is ultimately an undoing. The handsome aesthetic is evident. It is a very well realised ’50s setting and it is filmed with care and artistry. The camera adopts a classical style, taking up primarily static — but often very interesting — positions, framing the action with a strong eye for composition. This is emboldened by wonderful lighting and deep contrast; it is a luscious film, one of distinct colours and textures that is a real treat to the eye. There is some of the grammar of old film here, a traditional kind of beauty that folds back into the setting. It is a restrained and immaculate kind of beauty, a pristine lens and framing that gets more through doing less. Interestingly, this is the perfect match for our lead, Bill Nighy in the place of Ikiru‘s Takashi Shimura, playing the bureaucrat who upon learning he is soon to die, starts to reflect on his life and changes the way he lives. It is the same plot here as in the Kurosawa, with repeating character dynamics and mirroring sequences just transplanted to different cultural sensibilities. The unique structure of Ikiru is played back to us (leaving the initiated waiting for incidents as opposed to compelled by atypical sequencing). The thing is, in Ikiru, Shimura’s bureaucrat is only important due to his change, due to what he does: his actions show us that we should be defined by what we do, not by our social rank. In the original, the character is a nothing until they do something. In Living, Nighy is a something, a character the lens is fascinated by and one that is presented as a compelling enigma.
There is an old-fashioned charm to Nighy throughout, one somewhat at odds with where the messaging should be. He is repressed and understated, never overstepping and always pushing niceness. Through this, we see how niceness is not the same as kindness (though the film seems ultimately not be cognisant of this). His gentle, if cold, demeanour, gives every outside indication of ‘a gentleman’; however, his work brings no real good, he gets in the way of progress and his life has no meaning. Yet, the film is aesthetically paired to him. It finds beauty in the qualities that the film should not champion. The restrained artistry of the cinematography links to a divergence in the message of Living from Ikiru (and, if you don’t want to be reviewed by comparison to Ikiru, then do not remake Ikiru). Ikiru is a well shot and good-looking film, but it is not fussy. It doesn’t beautify bureaucratic surroundings or systems; it shows murk, mess and is a dark and gloomy picture. The nostalgic gloss of Living gives the period a glow; it is a world you like to cinematically sit in. The end result of this is that Nighy becomes one of the good ones and it becomes a film that pushes for a kinder, gentler bureaucracy. The narrative may end up where Ikiru‘s does (a somewhat pyrrhic end); but, in this, the spirit and sensibility of Nighy — the ever-old-fashioned gent — brings hope. He is a beacon, the film’s aesthetic underscoring this.
This makes Living a much less timeless and successful film. There is a niceness, a handsomeness, to everything here. It is saccharine, really, a present tied up neatly — a trifle, maybe. The narrative it traipses through has inherent substance (Ikiru has a great story) but the way it tells this story weakens it and saps it of impact. It becomes more character study than social portrait, establishing wider personalities more as a way of bringing more humanity and definition to our central figure. This could work but is at odds with what the movie ultimately is or should be. It is a different end to Ikiru, which is perhaps worth celebrating, but the end is much less interesting and does not square that well with the actual narrative thrust of the film. This is further exacerbated by the chosen time period. Ikiru is a film speaking from its time across time; it gains prescience through capturing then current concerns with specificity. Sadly, these concerns have not faded away, and have only grown. The present day, with its specific complications, would be a worthy setting for an Ikiru narrative. Transposing the film from ’50s Japan to ’50s Great Britain does very little. It exists in the comfortable past, a very separate feeling location (it evokes the opening text of Losey’s The Go-Between (1971) ‘the past is a foreign country, they do things differently there’). The irony is that the film from ’50s Japan speaks so universally, whereas the 2022 film in a much more globalised language feels like a narrow and dated piece.
The real kicker is that Living feels like a big cultural minus. Everything it tries is either better in the original film or a divergence that carries less interest. Watching it is never really recommended, as a better (and widely available) version exists. All Living does is function as cultural replacement and silencing. It exists in place of engagement with both international cinema and the history of film; it pushes down curiosity and thought rather than provoking it. To watch Ikiru today is to see something still vital and affecting, a portal to the past that speaks directly into the present. This film is a distraction from that, an obstruction that displaces the original, that dissuades engagement through its existence. Yes, it has beauty, but what is that beauty for?