PopMatters looks at Akira Kurosawa’s classic Ikiru, and the claims that it’s the Japanese version of It’s A Wonderful Life:
The story is deeply affecting and life-affirming, but the plot is only a small part of what makes Ikiru so masterful. With Kurosawa, his mise-en-scène is key to his brilliance. The set design is gorgeous; the worn-torn government building is perfect in its dilapidation and disrepair. The Second World War ended just a few short years ago — more perils of modernization.
The visual metaphors and analogies are thorough and bright. At one point, a young girl who Watanabe fancies runs in the middle of the street in between two busses. Much later, at the construction yard for his park, Watanabe finds himself in a similar situation and nearly kills himself.
Even though he’s finally completing his vision, he is still not comfortable with the rush of modernity. And each frame is meticulously constructed and blocked so every actor’s emotion is heightened. Yes, Shimura is incredible in his discomfort in the doctor’s waiting room, but how Kurosawa shifts him back and forth through the frame, ending in an unexpected close-up, compounds his forlorn and worrisome stares.
In the end, this understanding of visual storytelling is what separates Ikiru from It’s a Wonderful Life.
My own review of Ikiru is here.