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Japanese Cinema

Kurosawa #2: Madadayo (Japan 1993)

The first birthday celebration after retirement when the students perform a satirical song with the professor

Madadayo was Kurosawa’s last film – though he left behind several scripts and outlines, some of which have been filmed. The title translates as ‘not yet!’ – a shout of defiance by a retired professor at the contemplation of his own death but also a child’s exclamation during the Japanese game of ‘hide ‘n seek’ (“Are you ready”, “Not yet” and finally “You can come now!”).

The film was not released theatrically in either the UK or the US. It’s not difficult to work out why. Though I enjoyed the film on DVD (a so-so quality Region 2 disc from Yume), I needed a lot of guidance in order to understand every aspect. My main source was Keiko McDonald whose essay on the film is included in her collection entitled Reading a Japanese Film (University of Hawaii Press, 2006). McDonald’s essay is particularly useful since she both explains all the cultural references and gives her take on the usual Kurosawa debates.

The film does not have a strong narrative. Its story focuses on a professor from the time when he first announces his retirement up until the night of his 77th birthday and the 17th annual party organised in his honour by his ex-students. The start year is 1943 and the background to the events (barely glimpsed) includes the surrender, Occupation and economic re-birth and social revolution in Japan in the 1950s and early 1960s. Those events amount to very little of what might be expected in a narrative fiction feature. When the professor and his wife are bombed out in 1945, the students eventually build him a new home and there is a problem with a possible buyer of the adjacent property. Then the professor loses the stray cat which he has taken in and become strongly attached to. The students visit often and we see the initial retirement celebration and the 17th in some detail. How does Kurosawa make this into an interesting film?

Apparently, the professor is a historical character called Hyakken Uchida (1889-1971), who initially taught at a military college but then became a full-time writer and was revered as a ‘stylish essayist’. McDonald suggests that Kurosawa expected at least some of his Japanese audience to be aware of Hyakken’s writings. He then uses the professor’s musings and the strong relationship he has with his ex-students (the professor’s wife is the strong but mostly silent supporting figure in the background) as a vehicle to explore fundamental moral values and questions about mortality and change – both ‘natural’ and ‘social’. He does this largely through the medium of songs, poems and essays that might be familiar to large numbers of the audience who in McDonald’s words “have survived the Japanese high school system”. She entitles her essay ‘Cultural Responses to Simplicity’ and this is indeed the strength of the film. The best example of this simplicity for me is the example of the ‘moon’ sequences. On one occasion, in his temporary home after the bombing, the professor encourages his students to sing a childhood song about the moon as they all gaze at it across the rubble. On another occasion, the students improvise a musical routine around the moon song during the professor’s birthday celebrations.

There is little to say about the aesthetic of the film, though there are examples of familiar Kurosawa ‘extreme weather’ sequences and the ending utilises an expressionist use of colour. At one point I wondered if I was watching the film in the wrong aspect ratio since the composition looked rather ragged for Kurosawa. There is relatively little movement in the film. The professor remains seated or stationary for much of the time – only the students rush about. However, Kurosawa manages to inject life into the scenes and the central performances are very good. It may be an old person’s film – I certainly found it moving, warm-hearted, life-affirming etc.

In respect of the standard Kurosawa debates, it is clearly ‘Japanese’ and not ‘Western’, but it does conform to the theme of master and apprentice – except in this case there are many ‘apprentices’. I did  reflect on what kinds of metaphorical meaning I could take from the film, but I think I agree with McDonald that the meanings in the narrative are not meant to refer to Kurosawa himself – he is not the professor. Rather the film explores the concept of a changing world and the need to retain/reflect on the virtues of a traditional Japanese education/socialisation. The professor both reminds his students of what they learned in childhood and allows himself to become part of the changing world. The film that Madadayo in some ways resembles (though not in tone) is Ikuru in which another ageing man confronts his own death rather more urgently and with more socially directed goals. The whole approach to death seems to me to be different in Japanese culture.

This is a subtle work from a master director. It is calm but warm and amusing as well as fulfilling. It will have helped many say “Not yet!”.

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