Following World War II, a retired professor approaching his autumn years finds his quality of life drastically reduced in war-torn Tokyo. Denying despair, he pursues writing and celebrates his birthday with his adoring students.
This film tells the story of professor Uehida Hyakken-sama (1889-1971), in Gotemba, around the forties. He was a university professor until an air raid, when he left to become a writer and has to live in a hut. His mood has hardly changed, not by the change nor by time. Every year his students celebrate his birthday, issuing the question "Mahda kai?" (not yet?), just to hear Uehida-san's answer "Madada yo!" (No, not yet!), in a ritual of self affirmation, and desires of lasting forever. It's a very "japanese" film who portrays everyday life and customs in Japan. Written by
Jaime Moraga <email@example.com>
it's rare to find someone with the level of humility, warmth, humor and sadness of the professor...same for Kurosawa perhaps?
At first I thought I would have to resist the sentimental clinging I expected for Madadayo, the final film written and directed by Akira Kurosawa (though it was not, from what I read in Emperor and the Wolf, necessarily his intended last project- then again, neither was Prairie Home Companion for Altman). But what can I say, except that maybe I'm a sucker for films that deal with a protagonist facing old age - done well, of course. In this case, Kurosawa decides to do a 180 from what he did in Ran, however still with the same emotional depths. If Ran was a plunge into the dark recesses of the human soul, where death and destruction (chaos as the title says) can occur, then so can there be joy and laughter and songs sung all for someone who can inspire a small quasi-community too. Sounds sappy, to be sure, but somehow Kurosawa is wise enough in his true golden years here to know that there can be a level of honesty, and a good level of fun, in dealing with potential problematic subject matter. I don't even know if I would recommend the picture to most Kurosawa fans, particularly the ones who dig into only his samurai films (the only inklings of death happen off-screen, to cats more than anyone else). But it struck a chord with me in a way only the movies can do.
The professor is Hyakken Uchida (Tatsuo Matsumara, his first film for Kurosawa), and he's based on a real professor, who wrote many books and was also much beloved in Japan. There's no real story here, per-say, at least when comparing it to the tight structures of the director's bulk of work. It's a series of vignettes showing how, upon retiring from teaching, his students become his best friends and most ardent supporters through good and bad times. This includes his home being destroyed during WW2, attaining a new home (and the problems with that, at first), and also in the most tragic section of the picture when he loses his cat. The latter of these almost had me in tears, which is a little crazy as I almost never (sans Umberto D) feel emotionally tugged and pulled over a pet problem in a story. But by this point in the film there's been so much that's happened in the side of sweetness and joy with Uchida- his yearly celebration thrown by his students that involves revelry and drinking and songs and all that- as well as the great bits of wisdom and nuance, that this comes as an unfathomable shock. And it's in due really to how Tatsumara plays it, how the character is completely believable in having this intense vulnerability on the flip-side of his kindness and humility, and Kurosawa's tact with this story in general. It ranks up there with the best emotional scenes in Ikiru.
But for the most part, Madadayo is a serene near-masterpiece of moods, and the primary mood here is that on the other side of despair, as Sartre once put it, life begins. Even through losing his house and seeing the rubble all around him, and the emotional crisis with the cat, Kurosawa's primary strengths here are in getting the little details perfect, the student characters that (perhaps a little underdeveloped) are totally indebted to the professor and love him like a kind of Sensai. The big 60th birthday celebration contains such little details sewn in, like the one character who wont stop naming the train-stations as everyone else around him sings and dances and gives speeches in revelry, and in its own minor-key way is like a supreme sequence to rank with Kurosawa's other major sequences in his films. There's also the little asides that show early on that Uchida is not just a conventional-lovable old man, but very intelligent and with an intuition that strikes to the core of matters. I also loved the moment when he says that if one isn't afraid of the dark, there's a defect in that person, without the side of imagination.
Meanwhile, Kurosawa guides this work of two-thirds happiness and one-third sorrow in a very personal tone, as if he meditated on each scene before going into the cutting room. Rarely does he falter in getting the emotional notes right, even the sappy ones, and he gets from Uchida a fully rounded performance. He also decides to leave his film- with children in Uchida's dream doing the 'Not Yet' game- with one of his most staggeringly beautiful compositions (maybe an all-time great closing shot too). As I mentioned, I'm not even sure if Kurosawa knew this would be his last film, but he makes it as a light-hearted, humorous yet serious tome on living peacefully, loving both people and animals (feel the chill in the room when the character mentions skinning cats), and it's enlightening in how facing death is shown as a sign of the ultimate, superlative strength.
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