Kazuo Ishiguro vividly recalls his 11-year-old self traveling to school on the train every morning and sharing his compartment with a bevy of British businessmen in pin-striped suits and bowler hats, all on the way to their offices in London. “I was watching that from the outside because my parents were Japanese,” Ishiguro tells me in a recent interview. “I remember the men, particularly, thought it was important to speak like Harold Macmillan or Michael Redgrave—even when they were under great duress, they would try to keep up this nonchalant manner.”
For a while Ishiguro aspired to a similarly “ordinary middle-class life, such as the ones I saw the parents of my friends leading all around Guildford, Surrey, where I grew up.” But the future Nobel Prize–winning author, who moved to England with his parents from Nagasaki in 1960 at the age of six, came to be just as fascinated by his native culture. “Any Japanese movie that came on TV I would watch, and it became a big deal for me,” he says. “The Kurosawas and Ozus were the only Japanese films being shown on BBC Two quite late at night, so I always stayed up for them.”
When Ishiguro, 68, began to write fiction, in the early 1980s, these Japanese movies and others that he later saw in art-house cinemas exerted a strong pull on him. “I would go as far as to say all of those films were crucially formative in the way that I learned to write,” he says. “My novels are in a way written in the shadow not just of great writers I read but of those filmmakers.”
One of Ishiguro’s early discoveries was Akira Kurosawa’s 1952 film, Ikiru, about a Japanese bureaucrat who determines to get a children’s playground built after he discovers he is dying from cancer. “I identified the Japanese bureaucrat with these English bureaucrats that I found myself traveling with every morning and overhearing,” he says.
This theme of what becomes important in a person’s life when they grow aware of their own mortality is one that Ishiguro has gone on to explore in beloved novels such as The Remains of the Day (1989) and Never Let Me Go (2005), both of which have been adapted for the screen.
For several years Ishiguro toyed with the idea of writing a stage play of Ikiru and giving it a post–World War II English setting. The thought of writing a movie had not really occurred to him until he shared a taxi with the British actor Bill Nighy, who, he had always dreamed, could play the dying bureaucrat. “I said to him half-jokingly, I know this great part for you—it’s going to win you all the awards.”
Nighy hadn’t yet seen the film, but a few days later he watched it and told Ishiguro how much he loved the idea of doing a new film version. Ishiguro, who professes to be a reluctant screenwriter at the best of times (he did a couple of movies early on in his career, The Saddest Music in the World for Guy Maddin, and The White Countess for James Ivory) had now backed himself into a corner and suddenly found himself writing the screenplay for Living. The resulting film, directed by the up-and-coming South African director Oliver Hermanus (Moffie), is now being touted as a contender for the Academy Awards, with Nighy’s performance as Mr. Williams garnering a Golden Globe nomination.
“I always believed that Bill Nighy was one of our great actors, but he has never had a full-frontal kind of role,” Ishiguro says. “I think now we can see that he’s an absolute full-blown star.”
Ishiguro’s screenplay adds a more optimistic layer to Kurosawa’s original, which was written at a time when Japan was deeply uncertain about its place in a postwar world. “There was no reason for Kurosawa necessarily to be confident that Japan was headed anywhere that you would call a palatable recovery,” Ishiguro says. “Nobody knew then that Japan would become an economic superpower and, perhaps even more importantly, this very solid, liberal democracy.”
But writing Living with the benefit of hindsight gave Ishiguro an altogether different perspective on what Britain achieved after the war. “I am full of admiration for that generation of British people, who even while still continuing to suffer from austerity and poverty and a smashed-up infrastructure somehow had the vision to create a kind of welfare-state Britain, which with all its shortcomings was a wonderful creation,” Ishiguro says. “So I felt when we did Living we didn’t need to be as pessimistic as Kurosawa seems to be in his movies.”
As with Ishiguro’s novels, Living emphasizes the small and private moments that constitute a person’s life, but most importantly it focuses on the drama inherent in relationships. In the author’s 2017 Nobel Prize speech, he highlighted the need to create interactions that can drive a story’s plot. “I guess my argument is that your character can be as intrinsically brilliant as you want, but unless that character is connected to another human being, or at least something else like that, then that character isn’t going to come to life,” he says.
“With Living, I felt that the characters will take care of themselves if the relationships are interesting.”
Living, starring Bill Nighy and with a screenplay by Kazuo Ishiguro, hits theaters on December 23
Tobias Grey is a Gloucestershire, U.K.–based writer and critic, focused on art, film, and books