Few directors have had the audacity to remake cult classics – Gus Van Sant’s Psycho , an almost reimagining of Alfred Hitchcock’s iconic horror – and even fewer have succeeded. However, Living, a remake of Akira Kurasawa’s Ikiru, is an excellent production that pays homage to the original, but also brings something new to the story.
Directed by Oliver Hermanus, Living centers on Bill Nighy’s Mr Williams, a London local council bureaucrat in charge of the planning department. Papers are pushed, but little is actually done. However, after Mr. Williams receives some life-changing news, his entire perspective changes and he finally learns to live a little.
While Hermanus was behind the camera, the project was primarily promoted by Kazuo Ishiguro, the Noble Prize-winning author of The Remains of the Day. He tells Total Film that he had “displeasure” with the original film, despite the fact that it had a profound effect on his own outlook on life. Below, read a Q&A of our conversation with Ishiguro along with Hermanus as they reveal why they decided to adapt Kurasawa’s cult classic. Edited for length and clarity.
Total Film: Akira Kurosawa’s film is obviously several years old now – so why revisit this story now, at this point in time, and transfer it to this setting?
Ishiguro: Ikiru was a movie I grew up with. When I was a child, it was very difficult to watch Japanese films in England. And this was one of the few you could watch on BBC Two and in arthouse cinemas. It had a profound effect on me growing up and I think it has literally continued to affect the way I do things and live life. So it’s not like I suddenly thought, “Well, I’d better do it now!”
But this idea of bringing it to a new generation was something I felt more and more. Although people say they know the movie, Ikiru, Kurosawa’s classic, when you really dig deeper, I found that many people haven’t seen the movie or last saw it 40 years ago. The other thing that occurred to me is that, in the modern world, late capitalism, where people work long, long hours, they work in jobs and companies that are so fragmented, that they don’t really understand how the act relates to the larger function , how it contributes to society. They work very hard, creating a contribution, but they don’t know what happens to their contribution. And it’s very easy in this state, just to land from the new daily rhythm. It seems to me that in Ikiru, although you see a Japanese bureaucracy in an office block in Tokyo in the early 50s, this is an allegory for where many of us must live now.
It’s funny that it works as a companion piece to Remains of the Day, in which an old man reflects on his life and what he contributed to the work. Did you see it that way? And what did you want to say that was new in this story?
Ishiguro: What I wanted to say, as a screenwriter, that wasn’t in Kurasawa’s film, was that I wanted to add the English gentleman and the ambition to be an English gentleman, whatever that meant. I don’t think you have to be really English, or of a certain age, to be interested in English gentlemen. We are all English gentlemen, a small part of us, wherever we come from, whatever generation we are, is part of the human condition. We have a bit of an English gentleman in us with all the strengths and weaknesses involved.
The comparison to The Remains of the Day, there’s Steve the butler, played wonderfully by Anthony Hopkins in the James Ivory film all those years ago, and we have Bill Nighy giving a great performance in Living. There is a real point of comparison there. I’ll just add a small thought, I think the character in Living is lucky. He makes a huge effort to do the best he can within this small world in which he lives. He is very lucky because he happens to be in the right place and at the right time. He is a member of the London County Council, which despite all its bureaucracy, contributes to the building of a new Britain in the post-war era. We know that he contributed to something very big and positive. While Mr. Stevens in The Remains of the Day is down on his luck, he does his best, but he happens to have a fascist employer and contributes to all the wrong things. And sometimes it just comes down to this: whether your life has been a good life or not, there is an element of luck that you cannot control.
Oliver, you pay homage to Kurosawa in the way you direct, with some stylistic touches like the wipes borrowed from him. How did you balance paying homage and creating something new?
Hermanus: The interesting challenge was not wanting to look for all the answers within Ikiru – it was necessary to look beyond Ikiru. The things that inspired me stylistically were more the cinema of the 50s Westerns and a lot of the films that Ishiguro shared with me. I watched period films made by Ealing studios during the 30’s, 40’s and 50’s. Some of them are comedies, some were dramas, some were about war, some were not about war, some were social realist in attitude. Then I also started looking at German Expressionism and that became something of a literal metaphor – the idea of overhead shots and these angles to show how architecture dominates people. people who look like ants running out of Waterloo Station or the County Building.
The title sequence [which uses historical footage of London and uses large font to introduce the actors and creators, similar to movies of the ’40s] it was something I came up with at three in the morning one night in post-production. It felt like the right thing to add, to develop the form and to celebrate a certain kind of cinema. I remember thinking how criminal it is these days to have a title sequence with the actual words across the screen. People don’t do that anymore. It’s considered bad taste to have Living all over the screen, and I just kept saying, “Let’s make it bigger. Larger!’ You never want to imitate what comes before – you want to innovate or celebrate in some way. We’ve done a really good marriage of that, but it’s a love letter to a certain kind of cinema.
Ishiguro, you’ve said before that this movie wouldn’t have been made if Bill Nighy hadn’t been cast. What about Bill made him the man you wanted?
Ishiguro: I’m sure the movie would have been made without Bill, but I wouldn’t have been a part of it. Because the idea I pitched when the whole thing started was a version of Ikiru with Bill Nighy in the lead – it wasn’t a version of Ikiru brought to Britain. Bill Nighy’s part was absolutely critical not only because I’ve always thought he’s a great actor who’s never been allowed to take center stage. There was that element to it. But I’ve always thought about the original Japanese film, which as I said, I grew up with, that over the years there were certain dissatisfactions I had with it. I thought it was a great script, one of the most profound statements culturally, artistically, but in the execution of the film, there are some things that I thought, “Well, I wish they were a little different.”
Hermanos: Only he can say that. If someone else did it, it would end our career.
Ishiguro: Well, Kurosawa was an action director.
Hermanos: It wasn’t [Tokyo Story director Yasujirō] Ozu.
Ishiguro: All these people were making quiet domestic dramas in that style of traditional Japanese filmmaking, and Kurosawa moved into that. But I always wondered what it would be like if the main role was played by Chishū Ryū, the great actor Ozu who played the father in those famous films like Tokyo Story. If he had the main part, it would be a very different tone. He would have this soft, stoic smile on his face. Instead of this suffering. He would have maintained his upright, dignified posture, no matter how much it hurt. And I thought, actually, we have such a great actor like Chishū Ryū, the English equivalent, and his name is Bill Nighy. And so we can deal with this disappointment of mine for this near-great masterpiece. We could do our own version.
Living will be released in UK cinemas from November 4. For more, check out the most exciting upcoming movies coming soon.