Kurosawa’s protracted valedictory movie: “Madadayo” (1993)

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The 2001 documentary “Kurosawa” includes footage of Kurosawa Akira directing a child playing the quarry in hide-and-seek, hiding in a haystack (on a studio set). That scene, which turned out to be the last one that Kurosawa ever directed (though he wanted to make more movies after it), best explains the title “Madadayo” (1993). When asked whether the hiding child is ready to be sought yet (“Mo ii kai?”), he answers “Mada day yo,” which means “Not yet!” At the very end, the child is mesmerized by a very Technicolor sky and does not answer. The game is over…

The beginning of the movie is a parallel non-“Mada day yo” juncture in the protagonist’s life. In Japan’s Gotemba prefecture, some time during “the Great Pacific War” (1939 is my guess), a demanding high-school teacher (called “Professor”) of German Uehida Hyakken (1889-1971, played by Matsumura Tatsuo) announces to his class that he is retiring to write full-time.

The wry teacher has a band of devoted students who have annual drinking parties in honor of his birthdays, help him when his home is destroyed by US bombs, arrange for a new house with a large fish pond to be built for him after the war, and commiserate when his beloved cat disappears. At each of the fêtes in his honor, the professor jocularly says “Mada day yo,” meaning he is not ready to die yet (after chugging a very large mug of beer). He even manages to say this at the last (1971) one in which he is stricken after grandchildren of his former students wheel a large birthday cake to him. It is immediately after this that he goes home and dreams about the child (presumably himself) hiding and being distracted by the dramatic sky beckoning him out of the terrestrial world (instead of repeating “Mada day yo”).

After the summit/summation of his career that was the epic “Ran” (1985), Kurosawa’s “King Lear,” Kurosawa made three idiosyncratic, light-on-narrative, long on dreaminess and childish-innocence movies: “Dreams” (1990), “Rhapsody in August” (1993), and “Madadayo” (1996). They seemed let-downs form the very ambitious anti-epic “Kagemusha” (1980) and “Ran” (1985). Kurosawa felt that he had said what he had to say about epic subjects. Like fellow auteur Jean Renoir (The Little Theater of Jean Renoir) and such authors as William Faulkner (The Reivers and Thomas Mann (The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man), Kurosawa’s last work was light-hearted. “Madadayo” is something of a comedy, not a genre associated with Kurosawa (except in the very dark comedy of “Yojimbo” and “Sanjuro” and Mifune’s character in “Seven Samurai”).

The child-like, hedonist, pet-doting professor has some of the innocence of the Siberian (actually Tuvan) guide in “Dersu Uzala” (1975) and history certainly impinges (US fire bombs and postwar economic recovery in particular, the atomic bomb dropped on Nagasaki in “Rhapsody”), but “Madadayo” is primarily an affectionate portrayal of the artist as a stubborn old man doing exactly what he wants. What he wants is to write essays, which is easier to do than to make movies, in that movies require financing and the efforts of many persons beyond the writer-director. Knowing that the difficulties Kurosawa had doing what he wanted to do (make movies—after “Red Beard” in 1965, he was only able to make seven more, and none in the last five years of his life) adds the poignancy of seeing wish-fulfillment in the project.

Single-sex drunken parties are a major institution for the otherwise staid, buttoned-down Japanese salarymen. I rarely find drunks amusing, and the ideas of fun of drunken Japanese businessmen do not amuse me. (Their sentimental nostalgia is also less than fascinating to watch/hear and the drunken songs are tedious.) And the puns probably got lost in translation. (The urination humor comes through: yawn!) In my estimation, there is too much of these parties—and indeed I don’t see why the movie needed to run more than two hours (134 minutes in total). I understand that the parties show the passage of time, including the aging of the characters, and sociocultural change (in particular, the inclusion of wives at the final party), but I’d prefer to know what Uehida was writing about (the way Paul Shrader showed Mishima’s writings in his too-little-known and little-appreciated biopic “Mishima,” though it is possible, especially in that Uehida’s essays are given credit as the source of the movie, that Kurosawa unobtrusively did this —and seamlessly for someone like me who has not read Uehida; the story of a horse balking as it passes a store that sells horsemeat that the professor tells seems a likely candidate, and I see that there is an Uehida Hyakkenook titled Nora, My Lost Cat; Natsume Soseki’s perennially popular I Am a Cat probably also exerted some influence).

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Matsumura and Kyoko Kagawa as his wife are especially good. Other than the final dream, my favorite part of the movie is an extended exploration of how the professor has made his new house thief-proof. The movie also includes some entertaining stories and remarks by Uehida and some striking visual compositions, and is not perplexing like the hacked up “The Idiot” or the one Kurosawa movie I actively dislike “Dô desu ka den” (in which Matsumura also appeared, but not in a leading role), but it is certainly not one of Kurosawa’s ten or fifteen greatest masterpieces. Kurosawa was quoted as saying, “I hope that all the people who have seen this picture will leave the theater feeling refreshed, with broad smiles on their faces.” This was not the intent of his masterpieces and seems to me to be evidence of an (unexpected!) overeagerness to be beloved (as Uehida was) on the octogenarian Kurosawa’s part.

As a movie about aging, “Madadayo” is considerably less heartbreaking and grim than “Ikiru” (1952), one of Kurosawa’s masterpieces. There seems to me to be little at issue in “Madadayo.” It is amiable and does not offer a feeble recycling of the master’s earlier movies (like the last movies of Howard Hawks and Billy Wilder) or the disappointing finale of William Wyler (The Liberation of L.B. Jones) and the outright disasters of the last movies of John Ford (Seven Women) and George Stevens (The Only Game in Town). “Madadayo” is reminiscent of Ozu films (especially “Good Morning” (1959) and “The End of Summer” (1961); the latter, Ozu’s penultimate movie, even includes a grandfather playing hide-and-seek), shot in vivid, schematic color, but considerably more self-indulgent and sentimental than Ozu’s films. There are worse career endings, some examples of which I have reeled off in this paragraph, but Ozu (An Autumn Afternoon) and Mizoguchi (Street of Shame) ended their careers with better final movies.

 

©2016, Stephen O. Murray

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