The prospect of a remake of Ikiru, possibly Akira Kurosawa’s definitive masterpiece and a high watermark of humanist cinema, is genuinely laughable. In 2020, upon hearing about Oliver Hermanus’ modern adaptation, Living, it was hard not to think of Tim Robbins’ studio executive Griffin Mill in The Player, who at one point in Robert Altman’s 1992 film suggests a Hollywood remake of Bicycle Thieves as a tonic to the kind of things studios were making en masse. In the movie, Mill is never shown watching Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 picture, only recognizing it as a humanist film people were moved by. His project, if it ever entered development, would likely prioritize plot mechanics over heart and follow a formula without recognizing what makes the Italian neorealist film so special.
Produced with the co-operation of the Kurosawa estate, with a wealth of interesting talent behind the camera, Living moves the story to the west but follows the same plot points beat for beat. What might be most surprising about the London-set remake is that while the narrative remains ever faithful to the original, the change in scenery actually works to the benefit of the material. Of course, Living remains firmly within Ikiru’s shadow throughout, but with the help of Nobel Prize-winning screenwriter Kazuo Ishiguro, the story retains its deep well of sadness, translating effectively to a post-war Britain where the middle classes still retained a stiff upper lip rather than acknowledging their emotional traumas.
Ikiru effectively explores the dehumanization of bureaucratic work, and this concept is more pronounced in Ishiguro’s screenplay, with several characters referred to only in formal terms. Living’s protagonist is known only as Mr. Williams (Bill Nighy), who has spent his life so buried in town planning work that he never gets to know the people he spends most of his time with. At one point, Mr. Williams discovers that he’s been given the nickname “Mr. Zombie” by a co-worker. Not long off retirement, the protagonist receives a fatal diagnosis and learns that he’s been given no more than six months to live, which sets off a deeper existential crisis. Mr. Williams has been moving through his existence lifelessly, and has never stopped to enjoy the things that make life worth living.
The marriage between director and material is particularly unusual in Living, with the tender fable being brought to the screen by a man best known for gritty LGBTQ-themed dramas (2011’s Beautiful, 2019’s Moffie). The only thematic thread linking these projects together is the vague idea of living a double life; a fascination with men in exceptional circumstances who refuse to come to terms with their inner truths. At times, Living feels more like a stylistic exercise for Hermanus above anything else, as he subtly places archival footage of 1950s London alongside a recreation of the era.
Ishiguro feels like Living’s definitive authorial voice. Born in Japan but a British resident since childhood, the author went through a geographical shift with his early work, as he followed his first two Japan-set novels with The Remains of the Day. In 2012, author Salman Rushdie wrote in The Guardian that the 1989 novel shows how Ishiguro’s sensibility “was not rooted in any one place, but capable of travel and metamorphosis.” As such, he makes a strong case for why the Japanese novelist is the only person who should have ever been entrusted with relocating Ikiru to the British Isles.
As with The Remains of the Day and the 1993 film adaptation, Living is powerful because of how it compares an inability to articulate emotions with a stronger, more ingrained sensibility within the British culture; the need to retain a stiff upper lip even in the most upsetting circumstances. Mr. Williams’ path to enlightenment and his need to achieve some purpose during his remaining time is now an even more stronger commentary about the tension between experiencing the joys of life and remaining calm in a stifling culture.
Nighy is the perfect performer for Living. In the film’s best moments, it feels like it been deliberately reconfigured to be a star vehicle for one of Britain’s most enduringly beloved character actors. If there is one major flaw, it’s that the material has been considerably condensed — Living is 40 minutes shorter than Ikiru — meaning that audiences have little over an hour with Mr. Williams prior to his passing. As such, it often feels like anything not crucial to the story has been thrown out, with only a small handful of scenes drawing out the protagonist’s attempts to enjoy life while it lasts. Mr. Willliams’ passion for building a playground as his final project feels particularly unusual in how its handled; it’s one of the most memorable moments in Ikiru, yet in Living it seems like nothing more than a narrative beat. To the audience’s eyes, Mr. Williams isn’t the unknowable entity he is to other characters, but the lack of time afforded to character development makes him still feel elusive. Nighy’s performance may be solely responsible for ensuring that the intended emotional punches land.
Nobody asked for a remake of Ikiru, but Hermanus’ flawed yet admirable adaptation is the best possible version that modern moviegoers could ask for. Living translates wonderfully to post-war Britain, but it never gives the audience time to explore the full depths of sadness like Kurosawa’s source material.
Alistair Ryder (@YesitsAlistair) has been writing about film and TV for nearly five years at Film Inquiry, Gay Essential and The Digital Fix. He’s also a member of GALECA (the Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association), and once interviewed Woody Harrelson, which he will probably tell you about extensively, whether you want to hear about it or not.