Akira Kurosawa: Madadayo (1993) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: Madadayo (1993)

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1AndrewCommentaryBannerWe’re at the end.  Akira Kurosawa directed thirty films in a career that lasted exactly fifty years (Sanshiro Sugata debuted in 1943 and Madadayo in 1993).  My thoughts on Kurosawa’s final film are not as complicated as some of the others, but not as distressingly straightforward as some of the misfires.  I hope we can agree on one thing – that we should be grateful that Kurosawa had one more film in him and did not end on the disaster that was Rhapsody in August.

Madadayo seems like it may be an autobiographical film to put a cap on Kurosawa’s career, but I’m not convinced of that.  Kurosawa looked to the life and writings of Hyakken Uchida (Tatsuo Matsumura), a renowned Japanese academic, in making his final film.  The result is one of the most unassuming and straightforward stories of Kurosawa’s career as we watch Uchida and his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) live out their final years after Uchida retires and World War II winds down.  Joining Uchida is a loyal throng of students who love their professor and endeavor to keep him secure and safe as he grows old.

Separated from the rest of Kurosawa’s career, Madadayo is a surprisingly good gateway film to jump into Kurosawa’s body of work.  It harkens back to the simpler melodramas he made at the start while still keeping some of anarchic weather-based imagery that is used in his epics.  Watching the film for the first time years ago, devoid of the context that we’ve given ourselves these last few months, I thought the entire film was pleasant.  I really liked Uchida because he has a sense of humor that will trudge on with endless jokes half-funny and half-groan worthy so the idea of spending all this time with him wasn’t that bad.2The film felt more like a Robert Altman (Gosford Park, M*A*S*H) piece in that way.  Altman never had some of the stylistic detours that Kurosawa embarks in here, especially in the tale of poor Alley, but it has a lived-in feel that I really enjoy.  Part of that is thanks to the students who basically function as a Greek chorus for Uchida throughout his life.  Their constant presence seemed a bit odd to begin with – who in their thirties would still go and hang out with their college professor?  But I probably would and, even the purportedly odder elements like how they eventually have their own bed space at the Uchida’s home, make sense because the Uchida’s never had kids.  The film treks in one of my favorite elements, the found family, and what seems odd is really just a mutually close sense of protectiveness and respect.

The Altman feel is especially strong in the parties that form the center of the film.  The professor gathers his students every year for a Not Yet fest where they ask him if he is ready and, after chugging an impressive amount of beer, announces “Not yet!”  These scenes have so many wonderful details it’s hard to settle on what I like the most.  If I had to choose one thing it would be the student who went on to be a conductor of a Tokyo train who, when asked to give a speech, instead announces that he will detail every single stop on the Tokyo express line (and in a footnote to an already great moment, he specifies the express line – not the domestic).  So as the party rages on and the professor leads the other students in a song and dance routine that starts silly and grows more hilarious because of everyone’s zest the lone conductor is still standing there reciting every single express stop.  He is heard throughout the subsequent scenes until the end of the night when he finishes and the professor applauds.

This detail, lovely enough on its own, is part of why I’ve grown to love the film instead of merely like it the first time.  You get the sense that the professor has fostered these gatherings as a way of encouraging his students beyond the classroom.  When the conductor starts his spiel he does it with such enthusiasm that it’s clear he doesn’t get to do this any other time of the year.  It’s an encouraging detail in a career that, even when things seemed positive, seemed to be poised on the brink of despair.

What did you think of this end-of-life sentiment?3Kyle Commentary BannerThis is, in fact, the end, and I'm grateful for it in a weird, complimentary sort of way. Kurosawa's best techniques are so distinctive that after watching 50 years worth of movies in a several-month period, I'm over-saturated. That's one of the reasons Madadayo worked so well for me. This movie seems to call back to the first half of his career, with characters delivering very direct narration of their thoughts and using anecdotes to illustrate the movie's main ideas—I was reminded of Sanshiro Sugata. I don't know if the fact that it worked much better for me here is that we've had such a break from “this” Kurosawa in the past weeks or if he improved so much on this approach by the end of his career.

The things I love are basically the same things you mention. I love the candid relationship between the professor and the students—the opening scene where he walks into the classroom, notes that someone was obviously smoking before he got there, and proceeds to tell a story about how he's always late to class due to a smoking habit of his own should be a little cloying and obnoxious, but it ends up establishing and important dynamic for the rest of the movie. We don't really see Uchida “teaching” his students much throughout the movie, but we do see him providing them with a figure to look up to. We sense that they aspire to his level of candidness and thoughtfulness.

The party scenes really are the heart of the movie. Here we see Kurosawa working as a master director in a way that doesn't call attention to itself in the same way as the stylized, perfectly composed frames of Ran or the stark views of criminal society featured in so many of his early films—in these moments he's creating a fluid view of a group of people who, by the end of said sequences, we feel right at home with. You mentioned one of the best parts of the movie: the student who recites every stop on the express line, much of which is just occurring in the background while other events come in and out of focus. The sheer, uninhibited joy embodied by a sequence like this is tough to pull off, and Kurosawa accomplishes it multiple times in Madadayo.

The other main thing for me here is the performance of Tatsuo Matsumura as the professor. IMDB shows over 75 acting credits, reaching all the way up to 2004. I may try to seek some of these out (Samurai Rebellion, for example, sounds like a good time, and features kicking-and-screaming-era Toshiro Mifune), as it's a performance that, like the first scene, starts out with the potential to be one-note and moves into more complex territory.

It's kind of a wonderful movie.4

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