Madadayo (released 1998), Akira Kurosawa’s final film, is a complete departure from his earlier productions. Here , there are no lavish sets , no battle scenes with a cast of thousands. In this film, the master is in a mellow , reflective mood no doubt seeing the parallels between the central character and his own life.This is a rich , unabashedly sentimental film about growing old gracefully , with dignity and humor.
The movie begins in the mid 1940’s with Professor Uchida Hyakken announcing to his students that, at the age of 60, after thirty years of teaching German, he is going to retire and devote his life to writing. His books are finally selling well enough that he can afford to take this step. His admiring students who think of him as “solid gold” continue to visit him in his small house , bringing little gifts and drinking with him well into the night. Sadly , an Allied air raid destroys the professor’s house and he has to move with his wife to a one room gardener’s shack. Unruffled , the professor continues as before telling his quirky stories, cracking his little jokes and leading the contemplative life. Neither lonely nor sad, he remains an odd mixture of wisdom and silliness , strength and vulnerability. His students , who have remained in constant touch with him , band together to buy him a little house with the one feature that he longs for , a ” donut-shaped” pond that carp can swim around in endlessly. Each year too , they host a birthday party for the professor at the climax of which he drinks a large glass of beer without stopping and answers their shouts of ” Maada kai ?” ( Are you ready) with a firm response of “Madadayo!” ( Not yet!). It should be explained that these are the shouts of Japanese children playing Hide ansd Seek. The seekers shout ” Maada kai ?” and if the one who is hiding has not yet found a good hiding place he shouts back “ Madadayo !” In the context of the film , the professor’s response is to affirm that he is alive and well and not yet ready to die.
There is hardly any action in the movie except for these birthday parties , the last of which occurs when the professor is 17 years into retirement. The only incident that does occur is when his wife’s cat , Nora , runs away . It is an event that affects the Professor greatly and the students , by now middle aged businessmen, try their best to find the cat but to avail. Just then another cat appears and takes Nora’s place in the hearts of the professor and his wife . It is , I suppose , a reminder that life goes on and that each of us will eventually be replaced. The end of the movie is lyrical and leaves the viewer moved and curiously uplifted. I won’t spoil it for you.
Non- Japanese viewers like myself are at a disadvantage in fully appreciating some of the nuances of the film and of the professor’s behavior. For instance , the first time that he invites his students over for dinner his wife and he serve them a stew of venison and horsemeat. Apparently, the word ” fool ” is written in Japanese by using the same characters as are used to write ” horse” and “deer”. Thus , the stew of venison and horsemeat translates to ” fool’s stew”. I often wonder at such directorial conceits because I’m sure most of viewers , even among Japanese audiences , will not ‘get ‘ them. I was unable also to ‘get’ the point of some of the professor’s stories or understand his jokes which apparently were very funny because his students laughed uproariously at them . Consequently, I found the good prof essor a little tiresome.There is also no doubt that the incident with the lost cat was treated at great length; I found myself wishing the director would move on to the next part of the story.
One other aspect of the professor that I found disquieting was the way in which he treated his wife . She seemed to exist only to attend to his needs. She was always in the background cooking , cleaning up and refilling his sake cup. There was hardly any interaction between them. Was this because this was how women were perceived by the Japanese society of those times ? Or is it because Kurosawa routinely relegates women to secondary status in his films , preferring instead to focus on the male characters ? Perhaps a little bit of both.
Tatsuo Matsumura gives a wonderful performance as Professor Uchida, fully exploring all aspects of his multi-faceted personality. It’s remarkable that he was seventy-nine years old when he acted in this film. Great as Matsumura was in his role , Kyoko Kagawa was even more impressive in the role of his wife. Most of the time the camera was focused on the professor but she somehow drew our eyes as she went about her household tasks . The professor is admirable because of his equanimity, his dignity and his intellect but she is no less estimable in her self effacing industriousness, her practicality, her love of her husband and her acceptance of her role in life. All the other characters in the movie are secondary to these two but they are portrayed convincingly . The movie’s subject is a somber one but it is enlivened by flashes of humor and by the emotions that it generates. Without quite understanding the students admiration for their erstwhile professor , I found myself touched by their devotion to him . I’m sure that, in making this film , Kurosawa who was 83 at the time , was seeing the similarities betwen his and Prof. Uchida’s careers and expressing the hope that he too would be remembered in the same way after he was gone.
After the breakneck pace of most Hollywood movies , Madadayo may seem slow and trivial. Not so. It is a deceptively simple story that will have you thinking about it long after the movie ends. It may even cause you to go back and watch the movie all over again. I know that I plan to. ( **** out of five)