A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Madadayo (Akira Kurosawa, 1993)

Poster designed by Akira Kurosawa for Madadayo
Akira Kurosawa's Madadayo isn't quite the autumnal masterpiece we want a great director's final film to be, but it has a suitably valedictory tone. It's a portrait of a kind of Japanese Mr. Chips, a teacher so beloved that his students reunite every year to celebrate his birthday with lots of singing and drinking. The film is based on the life of Hyakken Uchida, an actual professor of German at Hosei University in Tokyo. We never really see what made Uchida (Tatsuo Matsumura) so beloved by his students: The film opens with his retirement from teaching so he can devote more time to writing, but we can infer from the genial, eccentrically bookish manner that peeps through his professorial sternness that he has always been a favorite of his students, often drinking with them after hours. The narrative (such as it is -- Kurosawa's screenplay, based on the real Uchida's essays, has no real plot or dramatic arc) picks up on his birthday in 1943, when his former students help him and his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) move into a new house. When the house is destroyed by fire from the American bombing, Uchida and his wife move into a tiny shed that was an outbuilding on a wealthy man's estate and live there until after the war, when his students build a new house for him. We see him celebrate his 60th birthday with his students at a banquet that grows so noisy some GIs from the occupying forces arrive in a Jeep to check it out, but they leave with smiles on their faces. He's so beloved that when a rich man proposes to build a three-story house across the street from him, thereby casting Uchida's house and garden in shadow, the man selling the land reneges on the deal and then sells it to a group of the ex-students. The greatest crisis in his life is not the war but the loss of a beloved cat, who wanders off one day, causing him so much grief that his wife calls in the students to help find it. Eventually, a new cat takes up with Uchida and life goes on. At the film's end, Uchida collapses from a heart arrhythmia at the banquet celebrating his 77th birthday, but even then he calls out the phrase "Mada dayo!" ("Not yet!"), which has become his ritual defiance of death at his birthday celebrations. Matsumura's performance sustains the film, which at 2 hours and 14 minutes is overlong and more a film for Kurosawa completists than for general audiences. The birthday celebrations become wearyingly exuberant, and the search for the lost cat seems to go on forever, but the film is lightened by Kurosawa's sense of humor and his affection for the characters. It also touches on the changes in Japanese society over the years: The classroom scene at the beginning has a militaristic formality, and the drinking bouts of the early birthday celebrations are all-male affairs. But by the end, not only has Uchida's ever-dutiful wife joined in the celebration, but his students' wives, children, and grandchildren are present, too.

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