Madadayo (1993)

Class: Staff
Author: Miles Imhoff
Score: (4.5/5)
April 3, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

Akira Kurosawa's final film, and his most charming, is the incomparable Madadayo. A great deviation from his previous film Akira Kurosawa's Dreams (1990), Madadayo is a much more traditional, yet nevertheless innovative outlook on the human spirit. The film recounts the life of a beloved professor who, despite setbacks in the world, perserveres emotionally and retains his innocent spirit with the help of his ever-devoted students. There are moments that will make you laugh, and still others that could have you bawling like a baby. What it all boils down to is the fact that Madadayo is a movie that is as charming as it is thoughtful; a beautiful tapestry of the life not only of its main character, but in some ways, of the director himself.

At a Japanese academy, a beloved instructor of German, Hyakken Uchida, suddenly declares that he is prepared to retire his position as professor, to which a loyal student thoughtfully observes that he will never cease to be their professor, for he was always a man of “solid gold”, free from impurities. The aging teacher is touched, and with his loyal students always as his support, he eases into his age of retirement, moving into a new house in 1943. With a small group of his former students there to dine on the first night of the professor's residence, they learn that their clever sensei has devised a plan to ellude burglars, who are common in that area. When two of his students test out these procedures in secret, they come to a sign labeled the “Burglar's Entrance”, which leads them on a path of signs designed especially for thieves, which in turn, lead them to the “Burglar's Exit.” Highly amused, they laugh heartily as they walk off into the distance.

Time passes, and the professor's 60th birthday rolls around. The joyous occasion is cut short due to an impending air raid, and ultimately during these raids, the professor's house is burned to the ground. He and his wife are forced to move into a virtual sardine can, a gardener's shack which only barely survived the attacks. The professor escaped with few possessions, and following the war, times became very rough. But his students and his devoted wife stayed by his side, and when the seasons passed, the first “Maddha Kai”, which is to say the professor's grand birthday celebration, comes to pass. With a wide group of his former students there to wish him good cheer, they ask him “Maddha Kai?” (ready yet), to which he responds “Madadayo” (no, not yet).

In the near future, his students finally rally the completion of a much nicer estate. With a pond, a study, and a pleasant home to enjoy, it appears as though the professor is finally at ease. A new cat, whom he calls “Nora”, also enters his life and captures his heart. But alas, Nora eventually runs off, and the professor begins to grieve bitterly so. His devoted students search high and low, but cannot find the missing animal. Finally, when all seems lost, a stray prances into his garden, and while the professor is at first resistent to this new guest, his wife generously feeds the cat and welcomes him with open arms. Soon, the aging man finally starts to accept his loss and his new gain. For all the searching done by, and the emotional aid of, his former students, the professor thanks them deeply for their kindness.

The professor's 77th birthday rolls around, and just as before, the professor is quick to announce “Madadayo.” However, his physical state has weakened, and the celebrations are cut short by a brief convulsive episode. He is brought home and allowed to rest, as his former students marvel after their sensei, pondering about the pure dreams of this “solid gold” man. And as he sleeps, the old man dreams he is a child, hiding from his friends in a game where they would yell: “Maddha Kai?” and he would respond “Madadayo”.

Madadayo is very thematic… there is a lot of meaning to the motives and the actions of the characters. One of the prevailing messages here is “innocence”, which is superbly captured by the professor's character (especially in the final scene). His declarations about his fear of the dark, his inability to tolerate thunder, and his love for Nora being three prime examples. “Resilience” is also a solid cornerstone to the purpose of the film, coupled with “hope”. Despite the hardships, the professor resists the pain and always finds a way to live on with the help of his pupils. Loyalty and friendship are the qualities of his students, and this comradery seems to stem from the professor's childlike innoncence. But it is really humor that often takes center stage in the story, which works hand-in-hand in many cases with innocence, hope, and friendship combined. It also makes for a pleasant viewing experience. The very term “Madadayo” is used in this sense, as it is asked at his birthday celebrations: “Maddha Kai?” (ready yet?), which is to say, are you ready to pass on yet? To which he responds “Madadayo” (no, not yet). Often it is during the celebrations or gettogethers that some chuckle-worthy anecdotes come out, one example being the professor's recount of an incident where a horse observed him purchase horsemeat. Visual humor is also skillfully utilized, such as the professor's method to detract people from urinating on the nearby wall, or the poem he hung on the wall of his first home after his retirement: “Annoyance is to have visitors. Nonetheless, this does not imply you. By the host. Delight is to have visitors. Nonetheless, this does not imply you.” Often, the humor is subtle and believable within the context of the story, and never detracts from the mettle of the film; but instead, always strengthens the thematic quality.

The acting here is top notch and very believable. Tatsuo Matsumura simply soars in his role. His performance as the highly sentimental, deeply wise, and often quirky professor is augmented by his range of emotions. He can go from positively jubilant, to downright miserable in a matter of minutes. The scenes where he cries are just too unbearably real, and the audience is bound to produce a flow of tears in response. The roller coaster ride of emotions he portrays while his character is searching for Nora accounts for several such examples. Kyoko Kagawa, while given a slightly less prominent role, also thrives in her performance. Her dutiful, highly polite behavior is what we most commonly see, but sometimes we get to her playful side. Her holding Nora and keeping him away from Tatsuo's character being one example, and her feeding the new cat (Kurz) as he first drifts into the yard being another. Her scenes sometimes require sorrow or deep concern as well, and she brings, as does Tatsuo, a great deal of professionalism to her performance. The characters Hisashi Igawa and Akira Terao play, along with those of Joji Tokoro and Masayuki Yui, represent the loyalty, friendship, and compassion of the wide spectrum of the professor's students. The actors who handle these roles do so excellently, often wondering in awe at the film's protagonist, and skillfully playing him up in the efforts to completely develop him. Unfortunately, the development of these characters individually is a bit low, and it would be difficult to analyze any contrasting characteristics between them individually (which is one of the few spots where the film loses points). Nevertheless, the plot does revolve specifically around Professor Uchida, and the remaining cast are, in many cases, the pillars that hold the protagonist firmly in place.

Even in a movie that is part comedy and part drama, there is still some room to comment on visuals. The lighting at all times during the movie seems to, despite the period this movie was made, connote the time period of the plot. There is almost a pale, aged look to everything… giving it a feeling (at least by my modern perception) of the 1940's. The way it seems to have been accomplished doesn't appear to simply be a “flaw” of my print, either. The sets, as a visual, are also superb. The filmmakers seem to have gone for a romanticized view of post-war Japan in several instances, with a look of devastation, but a prevailing feeling of hope. The final scenes, inside the dreams of the main character, also present a visual feat, but this time in a surrealistic sense. Much like Kurosawa's paintings, the sky has a very fantastical look to it, and brings the movie to a wonderful close.

There is some, but not too much, orchestral music in Madadayo. It has a really classical sound. And when I say classical, I don't mean Star Wars-style, I'm talking the style of classical you find the pages of 18th century history. It relies heavily on strings, and it is a superb and sophisticated method by which to accentuate the emotional level of a scene (especially the close of the dream sequence). Setting aside the orchestral side of things, there are also songs throughout, which are often simple numbers sung by the characters. One-two Mr. Pharmacist is one such song, and it is actually rather humorous in its parody of the state of contemporary current events (from the time frame in which this film takes place).

Above all, what Madadayo really is about is innoncence. There is a certain call for people to recapture their innocence, a quality that the professor never seemed to lose, even in the face of hardship. The visuals, the music, and the humor all provide a vehicle for this one prevailing theme, and it all comes together to make one knock-out swan-song for the “Emperor” of Japanese cinema. While not as well known as some of his other classics, it is truly well-worth viewing, for I'm sure that on some level it will capture your heart as it has mine.