Takashi Shimura did not receive an Oscar nomination, despite being nominated for a Bafta, for portraying Kanji Watanabe in Ikiru.
Takashi Shimura is the other frequent collaborator with Akira Kurosawa and was often featured with Toshiro Mifune sometimes in smaller supporting parts, but as well in lead roles who often were calmer wiser character in comparison to the more reckless and crazed characters played by Mifune. Although I do have to admit I did feel Mifune stole the show of those earlier film Shimura never was a slouch either usually giving a strong performance himself particularly in Drunken Angel. In Ikiru though Shimura is the sole lead, and Ikiru also stands as the only film by Kurosawa from Drunken Angel to Red Beard not to feature Mifune in any role, so Shimura stands as the true focus of the film.
The early scenes of Shimura's performance are some of the most depressing moments ever put on film. When we first meet him Shimura portraying Kanji as that of a man who might as well be dead due to the way in which he goes about his life. There is nothing to the man whatsoever as Shimura portrays him. He occupies a desk and that is all that he does. There is not a hint of anything else other than a man wasting away only doing the most mundane things in a most mundane fashion as a bureaucrat who just basically stamps one document then another, and nothing else. Even worse is that there is not even a sadness in Shimura's performance instead he goes to an extra level with Kanji as the bureaucrat who seems to be connected to absolutely nothing in the world.
Kanji soon finds out that he has stomach cancer, and the sadness of the man finally comes out. Shimura is absolutely brutal in just how he never is shy about portraying just how little happiness there is in this man's life. Kanji even as he tries to reflect back on a better time can only still think what was wrong in his past as well. Shimura shows us a depression in his performance that is truly memorable because of how overpowering he portrays this in this man. Shimura shows the in no way compromised feelings of a man who has never really lived learning he is going to die. It is not a depression that there is even a feeling of anger in, instead Shimura is all the more striking by making us see a man who almost resigns to his fate.
Kurosawa's protagonists tend to have a strong will, Ikiru presents us a protagonist who is almost exactly the opposite. Shimura himself in Stray Dog, Seven Samurai and Drunken Angel plays his roles with always a great strength of personality, as Kanji he creates one of the most meek characters ever put on screen. This goes beyond just his actions and Shimura makes every physical attribute meek in this man. He always has a hunched back, a hunched back fitting of a man who only ever hunched over his desk for year upon year, and his voice is that of a man who has almost never spoken. Shimura's voice here is weak, unassuming, and at times comes out with barely any mouth motions. This physical depiction Shimura gives us the results of a life not spent.
Kanji in an attempt to do something decides to live is to basically party and gets a young man to go take him around the night life. Shimura shows a man here reaching from the void trying to find something to change his lot that has befallen him in at least someway. In the night life Shimura is very good channeling the different emotions going on in this man's mind as he experiences something he was not aware of. There are moments with a smile where we see the man enjoying himself in at least some way, but even in the happiness Shimura portrays a certain confusion at the same time. He never seems to fully understand even what exactly he is trying to do, and Shimura even in the moments of brief pleasure shows that the overpowering depression within in the man never does leave him.
In the middle of the night of at least an attempted pleasure there is a moment where they stop for a moment and Kanji requests a piano player to play the song "Gondola no Uta". The song is about the briefness of life, and as the song is played on the piano Kanji sings along. Shimura is absolutely heartbreaking in this scene as he sings the words in such a quiet yet powerful fashion in that meek voice of Kanji's. Although his voice may not be strong the emotions in that voice are. Shimura as he sings shows us the thoughts of Kanji of the song that speaks to him all to well. The sadness of the man in this moment is not hidden in anyway and for a moment here this passionless man gains a passion even if it is a passion for his own depression. It is an absolutely incredible scene by Shimura.
Although there are moments of momentary enjoyment Kanji is still left depression by the end of the night, and still confused over what he can do to really live. Kanji believes he can find though out from his young co-worker who seems to enjoy life named Toyo Odagiri (Miki Odagiri), and he decides to spend time with her. Shimura again is terrific because he does not give an easy answers to Kanji in his plight. Again with Toyo Shimura suggests some enjoyment he has as he speaks to someone he thinks knows the path. It is purer pleasure here though, not something just of the moment, and we do see him honestly enjoy himself. Shimura though still keeps his depressed state as something that clearly never leaves his mind, and his wasted life and bitter feelings to his son even seem to over take the bit of happiness from the young woman.
The happiness is challenged even further though as Toyo quickly becomes suspicious of the intentions of Kanji and confronts on the issue forcing Kanji to finally reveal what he really wants. Shimura is excellent because even when he must blurt out what he wants he still keeps the nature of Kanji as a character. He tries several times to verbalize his desire with what remains of his life, and when he finally gets it out Shimura delivers it in a humble but with earnestness. When Toyo offers something very small as her reason for enjoying life, which is that she creates toys, Kanji takes off in attempt to do something like that himself in his short time left. Shimura's expression as he leaves is particularly notable because although we see finally a hope and even a drive these are still but a glimmer and desperation still remains the dominating emotion.
After this point we mainly get flashbacks to Kanji as he finally attempts to do something himself which is to take action in his work, and finally help a group of people by building a park over a cesspool. In these scenes we finally meet Kanji who has gained a purpose. Shimura importantly does not change the whole nature of Kanji as physically he stays much the same man, as it would be impossible for him to change the type of man in such a short time. Shimura instead shows the change in Kanji in a far more subtle fashion. There now is a passion as he works to make the park. Although still modest in his depiction Shimura is able to suggests an understanding of himself, and now an inner strength portrayed. As he tirelessly tries to make something worthwhile Shimura suggests that Kanji does not find something foreign, but instead that this potential was always was possible in the man.
This all ends in what is one of the most incredible moments in cinema which is the last time we see Kanji as he has finally realized his dream. It is a triumph of Kurosawa and his cinematographer Asakazu Nakai in the beautiful staging of the scene as we see the lone figure of Kanji swinging in the park swing all while it snows around him. The poignancy of the scene though is achieved through the final moments of Shimura performance. He once again sings "Gondola no Uta". Although his singing voice obviously has not improved or changed in some way the expression of the man most certainly has. Where intense sadness was the overlying emotion in his face before now there is the face of contentment as he sings finally having lived his life even if it had been only for the brief time.
The power of Shimura's work is in his firm approach for the character. Shimura portrayal of the man's plight is fiercely tragic, and it is never something that he eases away in his performance either. Due to this the redemption of the man is far more inspiring because the low the man finds himself in is realized so strongly beforehand. He never forgets the resigned nature of the man, and his fervor that does come is found in this same man. The redemption is not something that is found in an instance or a moment, but instead Shimura finds it slowly and in a heartfelt fashion that makes Kanji's journey of self discovery unforgettable. Takashi Shimura's performance as Kanji is an outstanding performance
which is remarkable as he allows his character's plight to be
properly mournful but eventually inspiring as well.