LOS ANGELES, Dec 22 — Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro has been obsessed for half a century with Ikiru, a classic Japanese film about an aging bureaucrat who after being diagnosed with cancer races to find meaning in what remains of his monotonous life.
The Japanese-born British novelist and movie buff, 68, began to imagine a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s heartbreaking masterpiece, still set in its original 1950s era, but transplanted to London.
“I’m one of these terrible people who come up to filmmakers and say ‘Look, here’s a great idea for a film, please go and make it, and let me know when you’ve done it,’” joked Ishiguro.
But when he pitched the idea of a remake “that married the material of the old Kurosawa movie to a certain study of Englishness and particular kind of English gentleman,” Hollywood producer Stephen Woolley quickly persuaded the author to pen the screenplay himself.
The result is a critically adored drama which has already earned Golden Globes and Critics Choice Awards nominations for its star Bill Nighy, and is a frontrunner for the best adapted screenplay Oscar.
The film plays on the “many parallels between Japanese and English culture,” particularly in the 1950s when both countries were rebuilding from the ruins of World War II, Ishiguro, who won the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature, told AFP.
Echoing Kurosawa’s original, Living follows the sudden realisation of Nighy’s Mr Williams character that he has achieved nothing in his decades of robotic, bureaucratic stasis.
Facing his own mortality, and unable to open up to his family, the London civil servant finally decides to help a group of housewives who have begged him for years to help construct a modest playground for their children.
The film is about how, with an effort, “even if you’ve got a small, stifling life, you might be able to find something… that tips it over into being something magnificent, that you can be proud of,” Ishiguro said.
But Ishiguro said Living is also a metaphor for modern life — in particular, a warning about the sense of detachment many people feel in their jobs today.
“Not being able any more to connect up the contribution you make at work to anything out there in the real world… You don’t even know how it links up with a guy down the corridor in your office,” said Ishiguro.
“I think our world has become even more like that now with a virtual world, after the pandemic.”
Nighy, most widely known for playing rakish, extroverted characters in movies such as Love Actually and About Time, puts in a deeply restrained performance.
The interesting challenge was having “to express quite big things with very little,” Nighy told AFP during the film’s AFI Fest premiere in Hollywood last month.
“That degree of restraint that people required of themselves in both countries during that period, I find fascinating,” he said.
“In a psychiatric establishment, they would probably declare it deeply unhealthy,” said Nighy, noting that buttoned-up men like his character would even “apologise for dying.”
“You know what I mean? ‘Terribly sorry, but I think I have to die now.’”
Ishiguro has tackled similar themes in The Remains of the Day, a Booker Prize-winning novel about an overly stoic, self-sacrificing butler at an English stately home, wistfully reflecting on his earlier life.
That book became an Academy Award-nominated film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.
For Ishiguro, it is high time that Nighy gets spoken about in the same terms as those Oscar-winners.
“He’s one of our great, brilliant actors, but I always felt he’d never had a chance to dominate a film,” said Ishiguro.
“I always felt, if you give him a central big part that’s the correct part, we will actually know definitively that he is one of the great actors of our generation.”
Ishiguro wrote the screenplay with Nighy in mind, even naming the lead character after his dream actor.
“I must have been very good in a previous life,” joked Nighy.
Living is released in US theaters Friday. — AFP