"Living," a remake set in London of Akira Kurosawa's 1952 classic "Ikiru," has been nominated for best-adapted screenplay and actor in a leading role at the upcoming Academy Awards in Los Angeles.
For British author Kazuo Ishiguro, a Nobel-Prize winner born in Nagasaki, writing the adaptation meant delving into what it means to be British, while remaining faithful to the original storyline about a local Japanese official who desperately searches for life's true meaning after being diagnosed with a terminal illness.
"What was very important to me was this study of the English gentleman. A certain type of Englishness becomes a universal metaphor for something that is inside all human beings," Ishiguro said in a recent online interview.
"The need to conform, perhaps a fear of emotions, the frustration of wanting to express yourself but not being able to break out of your professional role, or the role that society has given you. There were many things I thought we could talk about of the whole human condition by looking at this type of figure."
When he thought about who might play such a role in the adaptation, Ishiguro says he wanted an actor who could show restraint, someone like Chishu Ryu from the late director Yasujiro Ozu's films, and veteran British actor Bill Nighy fit the bill.
The 2022 British film version, directed by Oliver Hermanus and starring Nighy, will feature among the nominees in the two categories at the Oscars on Sunday, or Monday Japan time.
Ishiguro, 68, said that growing up as a boy in London, he was greatly influenced by Kurosawa's original film, starring Takashi Shimura.
"I think there is something (in Ikiru's message) that influenced me so deeply growing up, that there is something of that in all the books I have written," said Ishiguro, who watched the movie as a schoolboy, a time when he would commute to London in uniform at the age of about 11 or 12.
He said on the train, there were businessmen wearing bowler hats, carrying The Times, and "I thought I would become like these people I saw. I thought that I would have a very ordinary life. I never imagined I would become a writer. I think it's because of this that 'Ikiru' had such an impact on me as I was growing up," he said, reminiscing.
In the iconic role played by Shimura, Kanji Watanabe, a city hall civic section chief -- an earnest man by all accounts who has not missed a day's work in 30 years -- is diagnosed with cancer and told he has little time left to live.
Having realized he has led a life of monotony upon facing his impending death, Watanabe makes a last-ditch effort to create a playground in his local neighborhood, for which parents had submitted a petition to the city hall for some time, only to have become caught up in red tape and endless referrals.
The film's last scene is famous for the main character happily singing "Gondola no Uta," a romantic 20th-century Japanese ballad, while swaying on a swing as snow falls in the park he has helped build.
Seeing the protagonist's unmistakable sense of contentment at the end of his life, Ishiguro felt, "You don't have to become some kind of superstar."
"Even if you had a small life with lots of limits, with thought and a big effort, you could make that life wonderful. It could be living to the full. I found this a very liberating message," said Ishiguro, winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature.
Since that time, as his career developed, Ishiguro had always wondered what the film would be like if reworked in a British context. He one day approached the film's producers with the idea, and the adaptation came into being.
The setting has been recast in post-World War II London. Ishiguro wrote the script with Nighy, 73, in mind for the main character, bureaucrat Rodney Williams, because of his ability to evoke the archetypal image of an English gentleman. Nighy, similar to Ozu's Ryu, casts an aura of restraint.
Although the original story remains, the remake's elegant and refined look is partly down to the setting, which had originally been associated with the black and white images of a more "pessimistic" postwar Japan, now displayed in full, high-definition color and a more optimistic outlook for the future.
"Part of my motivation was to reintroduce this movie to a new generation and also to a Western audience. For this reason, I didn't want to change the essential elements of the film," Ishiguro said.
But he added that he wished to introduce a younger generation of characters who would inherit some of the legacy and good influence of the main character and pass it forward.
Film critic Yuichiro Nishimura said "Living" indeed reminds him of the famous past films of Ozu. "The performances in the film, in which scenes that could have been portrayed in a very dramatic way are instead depicted in a calm and simple manner are very reminiscent of Ozu's films," he said.
Nishimura added, "Alongside the film's exploration of the twilight of life, there are parallels evoked by the twilight of the shrinking British Empire after the war, which is why Bill Nighy's well-seasoned acting comes alive."
Ishiguro also explores love and its relationship to death, but he argues the theme is more of a "device" used to awaken the character to the importance of life.
"It's almost possible to tell the same story without the person being ill. The important thing is that something shocks the person into realizing that human life is short," he said.
"It's not essentially about death, but we are not going to live forever. So this brings the very urgent question of, 'What is important in our lives?'...In 'Ikiru' and 'Living,' it's a love of life. He wants to love the people around him, he wants to love himself."
"Living" will open at theaters in Japan on March 31.