Culture

Kazuo Ishiguro: 'We need better leaders'

The multiple award-winning author explains why his screenplay for new film Living was a passion project that harked back to his youth

Kazuo Ishiguro

Photo: Doreen Kennedy / Alamy Stock Photo

Kazuo Ishiguro, 67, is a Booker Prize and Nobel Prize in Literature-winning author, best known for his classic novels The Remains of the Day, which became an Oscar-winning film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, and Never Let Me Go. His screenplay for Living was a passion project –  based on the 1952 Japanese film Ikiru directed by Akira Kurosawa, a film he’d watched as a boy that stayed with him.

Were you a reluctant screenwriter? 

I’m one of these awful people, the equivalent of the ones that come up to me to say, I’ve got a great idea for a novel. So I had a great idea for a film, an Ikiru remake set in post-war Britain with Bill Nighy in it. That’s what I said to [producer] Stephen Woolley. I was only reluctant in the sense that I really believed in this film and thought if it was made well, it could be superb. So I thought he should get a professional screenwriter. And I’m a novelist.  

This feels like a film that will stay with viewers? 

When I saw Ikiru, I was a child. And it stayed with me all the way through my growing up. It’s crude to call it a message, but there’s a certain vision in that film that has literally influenced the way I’ve lived my life. 

How would you describe that vision? 

I didn’t come from a background from which people tended to do well. So the message of the film was really inspiring – it’s not about acclaim or the size of the achievement, but if you can make the supreme effort to do the thing you do really well, that makes the crucial difference between a life wasted and a life lived to the full. The chances are somebody else will claim the credit, but that’s not the point. While you are alive and doing it, it will be really fulfilling.  

The symbolism of a building children’s playground on a Word War II bombsite is pretty powerful. 

The best technology people had at that time was destructive. So it is a nice symbol. But the real legacy, we are suggesting, is the spirit that Mr Williams shows. That will be a legacy for the next generation – it’s in an attitude to life and an attitude to work.  

Did this contemporary film from post-war Japan map well onto 1950s London? 

I grew up in Guildford and went to school in Woking, so from the age of 11 I used to get on that commuter line to Waterloo. They all dressed in bowler hats, had umbrellas, regardless of whether it was going
to rain, and read The Times or The Telegraph. I’m glad that kind of England has faded, but I have a real nostalgia and fascination for it. I wanted it to be a study of a certain kind of Englishness.  

Was Mr Williams a character you enjoyed writing for then? 

He felt like somebody I’ve been thinking about for a long time. In some ways, he has a relationship to Mr Stevens, the butler from The Remains of the Day. But Mr Williams got lucky in that all his efforts went towards something we now know was very positive in the rebuilding of the welfare state in Britain after the after the Second World War, whereas Mr Stevens did his best, but happened to be working for a fascist employer.  

Anthony Hopkins in Remains Of The Day
Anthony Hopkins as Mr Stevens in The Remains of the Day. Photo: Pictorial Press Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo

Does it feel like a good time to be presenting that now? 

I think so. Our film isn’t overtly about the welfare state. But remembering the roots of post-war Britain is very important. There was a consensus among both Tories and the Labour government, which lasted until 1979. They did very well in those years to try and create a better Britain.  

Is that kind of political consensus possible now? 

In normal circumstances there is scope for both parties to build a consensus and get things done. There are areas where consensus is possible around climate change, around social care, around housing. But the better people have gone from the Conservative Party. We need better leaders. I’m hoping Labour will have a spell. It is crucial.  

Living is in cinemas from November 4 

@adey70

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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