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With: Tatsuo Matsumura, Kyoko Kagawa, Hisashi Igawa, Joji Tokoro, Masayuki Yui, Akira Terao
Written by: Akira Kurosawa
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: Japanese with English subtitles
Running Time: 134
Date: 04/17/1993

Madadayo (1993)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Teaching Our Children Well

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

I first saw Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece Rashomon (1950) back in the mid-80's when myEnglish teacher Lee Gorsuch loaned me his personal VHS copy. So it's only fittingfor me that Kurosawa's beautiful and funny last film, Madadayo, should bea tribute to a great teacher.

Sadly, Madadayo is opening seven years after it was made and two years after the death of Kurosawa. It's being distributed by the wonderful Winstar Cinema, who recently did tributes to Hou Hsiao-hsien and Leos Carax (and are planning one for Eric Rohmer). But, as Winstar isn't a multi-million dollar corporation, Madadayo is being quietly slipped into small independent theaters like San Francisco's Four Star, with little fanfare or acknowledgment. To me, Kurosawa's last film should have been the event of the year. Instead, people are out seeing Meet the Parents.

Why do we despise last films so much? As an entertainment culture, we far prefer first films by young people with bright futures. But it's disheartening to think that these clever folks will, too, eventually make their last film. And no one will be there to watch. Maybe it's because last films remind us of death. Maybe it's because we have no time for the foolish whimsy of old men's stories. Either way, we've shoved our masters under the carpet throughout the history of film, since D.W. Griffith died alone and penniless in the new Hollywood, all the way up to the chilly reception of last year's great Eyes Wide Shut.

But I'm not going to let this bother me. Madadayo is a great film. It's a slow, patient film, about a professor, or sensei (beautifully played by Tatsuo Matsumura) who is quick with a bit of comic wisdom, has a passion for old songs, is easily moved to tears, and has a huge heart. One character says of him that normal people can't conceive of his sensitivity and imagination. The film, based on essays written by the real-life professor Hyakken Uchida, is a series of episodes, some lasting just a few minutes, others going on for up to a half-hour. The funniest documents the sensei's clever burglar alarm, and the most moving is the search for his lost cat, Nora. Other episodes show the aftermath of an air-raid in which the sensei's house is burned down, and the sensei's 60th, 61st, and 77th birthday parties, all of which turn into happy drunken mob scenes.

The title comes from a toast given during the parties. The guests ask "mahda-kai?", which means "are you ready (to die)?". And the sensei answers "madadayo," which means "not yet." Kurosawa never lets his professor answer "yes" to that question, not even during the potent final scene, in which the sick professor is in bed dreaming about playing hide-and-seek. He shouts out, "madadayo!" in his sleep. Seeing the film now after Kurosawa's death makes us wonder about whether or not he himself was ready to go.

Those who saw Ran (1985) in its current re-release may not be able to reconcile that the same man made both films. Kurosawa always made two kinds of films. We'll call them his "kinetic" films; films like Seven Samurai (1954) and Ran, and his "still" films; films like Ikiru (1952), High and Low (1963) and Madadayo. Though I'm in the minority, I've always preferred the still films. Kurosawa is unequaled at filming battle scenes, and I always get a charge from watching them, but I'm always more satisfied with his explorations of character. Though Kurosawa is brilliant at creating movement within the frame, he's equally brilliant (thanks to his painting skills) at filling a quiet frame with staging, colors, rain, and smoke.

Many reviewers have complained about the sentimentality and the singing in this movie. But I find the mood of Madadayo much more relaxed than Kurosawa's previous films, Dreams (1990) and Rhapsody in August (1991), both of which I admired for their beauty and artistry but found too preachy in spots. Reviewers have also complained about the lack of any characterization beyond that of the sensei, to whom everyone relates. But this is clearly a portrait of Kurosawa himself, at a time when he didn't care what the masses thought anymore.

Kurosawa has been both overrated and underrated in his career. Many make the mistake of basing his entire reputation on the samurai films with Toshiro Mifune. French critics wronged him by comparing him unfavorably to Kenji Mizoguchi and Yasujiro Ozu. (We may as well dismiss the films of Alfred Hitchcock because they're not enough like the films of Howard Hawks.) His countrymen in Japan have turned their backs on him, considering him a sell-out with his "too Western" films. Very few take into account the gentle, painterly Kurosawa who makes films like Madadayo. Perhaps it's time they should.

DVD Details: Winstar/For Lorber's DVD contains few extras, but boasts a wonderful transfer and clean, clear subtitles. It's a perfect final masterpiece from an extraordinary filmmaker.

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