Though his career is characterised by horror and (to a lesser extent) yakuza films, License to Live proves that Kiyoshi Kurosawa is just as fortuitous directing drama. Or should that be comedy? Because despite dealing with such potentially heavy subjects as the disintegration of the family and a comatose man's loss of his past, License to Live creates more laughs than tears.
24-Year old Yutaka wakes up in a hospital room after lying in a coma for ten years. His family is nowhere to be found: his parents have divorced and moved away, his sister is engaged and spends much of her life overseas. They have all made peace with the Yutaka's seemingly inevitable destiny and said their goodbyes long ago. Taking the young man under his wing is non-conformist loner Fujimori (Kurosawa's token leading man Koji Yakusho), an old friend of his father's who runs a fish farm and does assorted clandestine jobs on the side. Fujimori gives him a bed, a job and a crash course in growing up which includes driving lessons and a visit to a prostitute. Yutaka endures it all, sometimes with glee, but mostly with aversion (in which case Fujimori has to literally drag him), his reactions always revealing the mind and perception of a child scared of the daunting task of growing up.
Inevitably, his family members start dropping by. His father has left his old life behind and become a traveller. As far as he's concerned, Yutaka is part of that old life and he refuses to take responsibility for his son. His sister comes around every now and then with her dim-witted fiancÚ (Sho Aikawa in one of those great change-of-pace roles so typical of his collaborations with Kurosawa), but she's too accustomed to her breezy life to stick around for long. The only one Yutaka seems to have any connection with is his mother, even though she too tells him that he should lead his own life.
Despite the change of pace, Kurosawa's characteristic barren, gloomy visual style is still very much in evidence here. But stripped of the scare tactics, it serves to emphasise the dry comic touches of the story and the characters, and complements the director's refreshing approach to the genre. There isn't an ounce of sentimentality to be found in License to Live. It strays far off the beaten path of human drama, shunning the predictability of your average celluloid tragedy to deliver genuine laughs.
The film also once again delivers proof of Kurosawa's proficiency as a writer. His Yutaka is a character constantly bouncing back and forth between maturity and childhood, forced to make up the ten crucial years missing from his mental development. The method by which he finally makes that big step is by rebuilding and reliving one of the happiest moments of his childhood. When the task is completed he is free to leave that childhood behind, but it takes an unexpected outside element for him to finally realise it.
As with Kurosawa's horror and yakuza films, License to Live re-addresses and re-evaluates the rules and expectations of a stilted genre, yet should feel thoroughly familiar to those who know the director's work. Constantly re-inventing while at the same time remaining remarkably consistent is nothing if not the defining characteristic of an auteur, and Kiyoshi Kurosawa definitely fits the bill.