Akira Kurosawa's 1952 film Ikiru – translated as "to live" in English – is such a bona fide classic that it begs the question, "Why remake it?" After watching Living, the actual remake, I was still asking myself that question.
The story of Ikiru concerns an unremarkable Tokyo bureaucrat (Takashi Shimura) who, upon learning that he has cancer and mere months to live, decides to finally make something out of his life – but he just doesn't know how. At least not until a proposal for a humble children's playground presents itself. It's a subtle but beautiful movie, masterfully shot as always by Kurosawa and with a deeply moving performance by Shimura. Very much worth your time.
Living shifts the setting to London in 1953. So the dialogue is now in English and the film is shot in color. If you could call those "improvements", then they are the only ones Living has to offer. This time we have Bill Nighy playing the bureaucrat; the screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro is extremely faithful to the one Kurosawa wrote with Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni seventy years earlier. In an unusually quiet year for male-led prestige pictures, both Nighy and Ishiguro have received Oscar nominations for their work.
Nighy's performance is faultless, but he's ironically one of the reasons why Living doesn't work as well as Ikiru. Whereas the diminutive Shimura convinces us instantly as an ignored little nobody, Nighy's poise – the man is 6'1", and looks even taller due to his gaunt frame – gives him a sort of regal aloofness. You don't get a sense that his character is a lifelong loser as much as a once-dynamic man who lost his potential behind a desk. Which is a story unto itself, but there's none of the desperation that Shimura conveyed so effortlessly. Nighy just seems kind of sad. And notably, Shimura was just 47 when Ikiru was shot; Nighy was 72 during the production of Living. We will naturally feel differently about a 47-year-old man given a death sentence than we will about a 72-year-old in the same situation.
The choice to keep the story set in the early 1950s also mars the film's relevance. Ikiru was a contemporary story that had much to say about Japanese mores of the time. As Living is a period picture, we watch the drama from a safe distance. Imagine if it was about a middle-aged project manager at a software company in 2022 who had wasted much of the last 15 years of his life arguing over politics on social media. Now that would have been a meaningful remake.