Jenny Jones

Camera movement in Ikiru

Akira Kurosawa uses camera movement in Ikiru (1952) to reflect the narrative. Kanji Watanabe’s life changes dramatically, and the camera’s mobility reinforces that instability. The film changes perspectives and subjectivity many times; the camera eases viewpoint transitions by tracking towards and away from characters. Kurosawa employs multiple cameras so we see characters from a variety of angles. Ikiru’s latter half becomes more confined in movement as the story comes to a close.

The camera first shows Watanabe with an objective eye-level medium shot. The camera remains still and the words “Public Affairs Section Chief” appear on the screen. This shot is straightforward and factual, and afterwards the view becomes subjective to Watanabe. The camera rotates from behind him to front-left of him, and the narration becomes more personal. Next, Toyo Odagiri reads off a joke to the workers. The shot shows Watanabe from behind, and he is placed center frame. We do not see his face, but we can assume he remains lifeless. The workers shuffle uncomfortable in the frame’s left and right sides. Kurosawa then employs reverse-field cutting, and we see Watanabe face-on. He shows no expression, as expected. The camera stays stationary as he returns to working. The first perspective change occurs as the film cuts to the peasant women.

The scene in the doctor’s office exemplifies Kurosawa’s methods. The doctor tells Watanabe the prognosis: Watanabe has a “stomach ulcer”. Watanabe knows the doctors lie to patients with stomach cancer, and he begs the doctor to tell him the truth. This scene sets up Ikiru’s central conflict. Watanabe’s terminal cancer changes him significantly for the first time in twenty years. The camera movement contributes to the scene’s importance and volatility.

Kurosawa first uses an extreme long shot to show Watanabe outside the office. He appears small and insignificant, and his body language conveys his nervousness. He sits hunched over and with his face down as he grips his hat. He does not hear his name being called the first time, then jumps up and drops his coat in his rush to the office. He walks slower as he gets closer to the off-camera office. Kurosawa says he likes to use multiple cameras and long lenses because they force the actors to “act with their whole body.” The actors become uncertain which and when cameras focus on them, so they act more naturally (Kurosawa.) Watanabe’s body language and facial expressions often replace any verbal exposition throughout Ikiru, so it becomes especially important that Shimura’s acting portrays the correct emotions.

Next, an abrupt cut occurs and the camera is in the office. It follows Watanabe’s path from the door into the office, focusing viewers’ attention on him. Then the camera rotates further left to show the nurses, and then even further left to show the doctors. As the camera moves left, it leaves Watanabe. This establishes that the nurses, doctors, and Watanabe are equally important to the scene. The next cut shows a medium close-up of the two male doctors, but now the camera is at the opposite side of the room. The camera follows the doctor as he walks across the room, and when he (and thus the camera) stops moving, Watanabe now occupies the screen’s left side. Another reverse-field cut shows Watanabe’s petrified expression.


The scene’s remainder cuts between shots of the characters from various angles. The doctor tells Watanabe about the “ulcer”; Watanabe drops his coat and looks up in despair. The camera views Watanabe from behind a large glass medicine cabinet. The shelves appear like bars across Watanabe. Kurosawa purposely ensures very linear design throughout Ikiru (Prince.) The shelves in this scene appear to jail Watanabe; he becomes further trapped when he hears his prognosis. One doctor sits at the table with Watanabe, countering Watanabe’s concerns. All of the nurses and doctors share responsibility for hiding the truth from Watanabe, and the camera cuts to them in order to show their guilt. One nurse walks away from the table and the camera follows her as she picks up Watanabe’s coat. Her jaw clenches and she pauses as she looks at his coat and then out the window. The next cut shows the second doctor, whose head is bowed. He begins to turn toward the table, but instead looks back to his work. The doctor speaking to Watanabe swallows uncomfortably and can not maintain eye contact with Watanabe. The scene ends and transitions with a wipe.


The camera becomes more constrained after Watanabe’s death. Much of Ikiru’s latter half takes place in one room and portrays Watanabe’s funeral. First, the narrator says “the protagonist of our story has died” as the camera focuses on a framed picture of Watanabe. This shot is very straightforward, and mirrors the first shot of Watanabe at the movie’s beginning. Next, an establishing shot shows the bureaucrats sitting in two rows along the walls. The camera tracks away from the room until only a few faces can be seen through a window. The wall around the window is broken up by lines. Now, the bureaucrats appear trapped. The camera moves right to another window, through which Mitsuo and his wife can be seen. Lines frame them as well.


Kurosawa uses camera movement to focus on new guests entering Watanabe’s funeral room. The camera follows the Mayor and his men, the peasant women, and the police officer when they walk in to pay their respects. The camera does not follow them out, however; it remains stationary as the guests walk off screen. Kurosawa wants the focus to remain on whoever stays in the room. The bureaucrats’ discussion of Watanabe starts off very orderly, and Kurosawa simply cuts between their faces. The bureaucrats begin drinking more and grow steadily more passionate, and the camera begins moving again to follow their actions.

Ikiru’s various viewpoints help establish the environment that surrounds Watanabe. The film alternates between a subjective view of his situation and the experiences of those around him. The highly mobile camera reflects the changing perspectives. Kurosawa chooses unstable visuals to reinforce not only the changing of Watanabe’s life, but the transience of life itself.

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