Living is based on the Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa’s classic Ikiru (1952, meaning of title: ‘to live’). Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro adapted it to make an English version with Bill Nighy in mind when he wrote the screenplay, creating a setting in 1950’s London. Interestingly, Kurosawa himself was inspired by Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich when he made Ikiru, and with his eloquent camera, transposed the Russian master’s novella into a Japanese story on screen.
With Living, the Japanese-British novelist Ishiguro has succinctly condensed Kurosawa’s 142 minute film into a shorter feature of 102 minutes, helmed by South African director Oliver Hermanus. It’s interesting to note the cross-cultural transferral, for the film is about the universal theme that we all share as a humanity, living a meaningful life in the face of death.
This is one of the less-hyped movies during the 2022 Awards Season, despite the film getting two Oscar nominations: Best Adapted Screenplay for Ishiguro, and Best Actor for Bill Nighy, his first and long due Oscar nod.
It’s timely that I finally get the chance to watch Living now in April, a month that signifies new births. Considering the change in the main character Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy), even the idea of resurrection is apt when taken metaphorically, from death to life, ironically, for a man who has just been diagnosed with terminal illness.
As the head of the public works department at County Hall for numerous years, Williams is contented with following the bureaucratic daily routine by the clock, pushing papers to other departments, or, if the file has to stay in his, stalling it till it becomes extinct.
The camera angles give us a vivid perspective. From the overhead shot above the train station, we see a mass of uniformity, men in dark suit and bowler hat heading to work. Looking down from above, they are small and insignificant. And from the slow motion of them walking, we see the wheel of work turning, ever so slowly, in mundane routine heading to the office and the same vehicle bringing them home at the end of the day.
After Williams gets the confirmed diagnosis of cancer and that he will have just six months to live, there appears the audio motif of a clock ticking; this time, it’s not to remind him of work routine but the limited time of life remaining.
In the wake of the ominous news, Williams’ reactions change from stoically bearing the shock to actively seeking a meaningful existence, and ultimately finding a purpose that he feels can fulfill his life. Nighy’s performance is immersive, reserved, and nuanced, and at times, allowing a ray of deadpan humour to seep through. If the restrained ‘Englishness’ is what the actor naturally possesses, or one that he has fully grasped in his cultural milieu, then it has served him perfectly in this role.
In an online interview, Ishiguro explains this ‘Englishness’ as a metaphor:
A certain type of Englishness becomes a universal metaphor for something that is inside all human beings, the need to conform, perhaps a fear of emotions, the frustration of wanting to express yourself but not being able to break out of your professional role, or the role that society has given you. There were many things I thought we could talk about of the whole human condition by looking at this type of figure.
Many scenes in Living are direct parallels of Kurosawa’s Ikiru with his protagonist Kanji Watanabe (Takashi Shimura). Both men confide their terminal illness not to their son who lives with them, but to a stranger in a restaurant, sharing their last wish, that is, to live life, for a change. The sympathetic listener brings the despondent man to various places for him to ‘live it up’. In both films, we see the same places but in different cultural context, amusement parks, bars, dance hall, strip club, but what Williams and Watanabe find are but superficial, ephemeral flares.
The ultimate change in Williams is sparked by a young, female staff Margaret Harris (Aimee Lou Wood), who needs his reference as she has found a new job. Meeting her by chance on the street, Williams invites her to have a ‘simple’ lunch with him at the Fortnum, where he can write her reference letter. It’s there that we see Williams break out with a genuine smile for the first time, forty-one minutes into the movie. Harris’s youthful and vivacious spirit later inspires Williams to go back to the office as a new man after his few days of escapade, to get down to work and this time, doing something that’s meaningful and benevolent.
A crucial addition in Living, and kudos to Ishiguro, is bringing in a young, new worker, Peter Wakeling (Alex Sharp), to the public works department, first day on his job. From his fresh, untainted eyes, we see the novice civil servant being open and ready to accept whatever the bureaucratic system requires of him. His boss Williams’ new-found purpose and subsequent change at work has left him with an indelible impression. And with co-worker Miss Harris, a warm storyline of budding romance adds flavour to the film, albeit introduced a bit late towards the end.
One poignant scene in both films is the protagonist singing in a bar. For Nighy, this is probably the best cinematic moment for him to leave his mark as a soulful singer, a deep and heartfelt performance in contrast to his farcical ‘Christmas is all around’ in Love Actually (2003). The scene here in Living is when a slightly drunk Williams asks the pianist at a pub to play as he sings ‘The Rowan Tree,’ a Scottish folk song that evokes longing for the past and loved ones gone.
Later, in the remake of Kurosawa’s iconic scene from Ikiru, we see Williams sitting on a swing and hearing his moving reprise of the song, this time sober and clear of what’s waiting for him. As the final credits roll, the mesmerizing voice of Lisa Knapp stirs ripples in my heart long after the visuals end.
~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples