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Ikiru with Bill Nighy: How Kazuo Ishiguro Prompted A New Remake of A Favorite Japanese Movie

At the cross of Japanese and British culture, the screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro breathes new life into Akira Kurosawa's Japanese cinema classic.



Caption: Ikiru, Living (featuring Bill Nighy) (©Number 9 Films Living Limited)

Prizewinning author Kazuo Ishiguro (68) wrote the screenplay for the British remake of Akira Kurosawa's immortal 1952 masterpiece, Ikiru. Roughly translated, the name means "living." Winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (2018), Ishiguro is also known for being an avid movie buff. He actually saw Kurosawa's original film as an impressionable youth when he was 11. 

In an interview with The Sankei Shimbun, Ishiguro talked about his new project and the Japanese film's influence on him.

Looking back, there were few opportunities to come into contact with Japanese films in Britain in the 1960s, he said. 

"The only works I was able to see were those of Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa." The two, of course, were considered among the most influential Japanese film directors. "They had a huge impact on me and continue to influence me as an adult," the writer added.

Kazuo Ishiguro ©Howard Sooley

The Gentlemen in Bowler Hats

When Ishiguro was 11 years old, he began commuting by train to a grammar school in a neighboring town. He remembers seeing stereotypical British gentlemen on the trains and station platforms. They very much resembled the main character played by distinguished actor Bill Nighy in his new rendition of the film.

"The men heading to work in London looked like something out of a movie. They all wore pinstripe suits, bowler hats, and carried briefcases, umbrellas, and the same newspapers. While looking at them, I couldn't help wondering if I would be like them in the future.''

It was during this time that he saw Kurosawa's film, Ikiru, starring Takashi Shimura, a well known actor and a favorite of Kurosawa.  "After watching that movie, I got the message that even if you don't become a superstar or do something outstanding, you can still live your life at its fullest, as long as you try your best."

As an adult Ishiguro began to ponder about Ikiru's main character. 

"I wondered what the film would have been like if the leading role had been played by another actor. For example, by Chishu Ryu. The tone itself would have changed.”  Ryu is a Japanese actor known for his unassuming acting style which made him a favorite with Ozu. He appeared in many of Ozu's productions, including the acclaimed Tokyo Story (Shochiku, 1953).

©Number 9 Films Living Limited

A British 'Chishu Ryu'

Next, he wondered, "Isn't there a great actor in England who is as worthy as Chishu Ryu?'' He evidently found the answer.  

The first thing Ishiguro told the producer of the new film was "Let's make Ikiru with Bill Nighy, rather than just making a remake of Kurosawa's Ikiru."  

In the new version of the film, translated as Living (2022),  there are many scenes showing the writer's respect for Kurosawa's work. 

In the famous last scene of the original film, the main character Kanji Watanabe hums a song while sitting on a swing in a snowy park late at night. The same scene reappears in the new film.

Still, Ishiguro has also made some changes. In Ikiru, Watanabe's simple acts of benevolence are not carried on. His life at the civil service office goes back to the normal state of "doing nothing."  

On the other hand, a young character is introduced in the new film. He carries on to the next generation the legacy left by the main character. 

Also, the ending contains Ishiguro's own ideas. "It takes on an air of hopeful optimism of sorts," he admits.

About Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954 and moved to England when he was five. After reaching adulthood, he became a naturalized British citizen. In 1989, he won the Booker Prize, Britain's most prestigious literary award, for his novel, The Remains of the Day (Faber and Faber, 1989). In 2017 he won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and in 2018, he received the Japanese National decoration, the Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Star.


(Read the related article in Japanese.) 

Author: Keiko Mizunuma

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