Madadayo (1993) is Akira Kurosawa’s last film. That is the most important aspect of the movie. After 49 years and 29 films, this 30ith film was the end. Few artists have an as thematically appropriate final work as Madadayo. One can look at Kurosawa’s entire body of work as one singular artistic expression. He completed his masterpiece about humanity with Ran. With that accomplishment achieved, he turned inward to examine his own thoughts, fears and hopes in Dreams. He returned to his roots by making a social issue film about his homeland with Rhapsody in August. After these films what could he make that would feel in keeping with his body of work, but not feel like a pale retread? He made an ode to the most important quality he had as an artist, his almost greedy drive for the new and a refusal to admit defeat. What it represents is fascinating. It doesn’t even really matter about the quality of the film itself.
Warning– this post contains spoilers. To find out if I recommend the film or not, skip to Final Verdict.
Madadayo’s title comes from a Japanese childhood game that appears to be a mix between hide and seek & Marco Polo. One child is hiding while the other children call out “Madaki?” (Are you ready?) and hiding child responds “Madadayo” (Not yet). In this film the call and response becomes a literal game of accepting death. The movie begins with the beloved eccentric German professor Hyakken Uchida (Tatsuo Matsumura) retiring from teaching at the age 60. He is so beloved that his former students stay in his life and every year on his birthday they celebrate him still being alive. The party revolves around Matsumura drinking a huge glass of beer and engaging in the childhood exchange by exclaiming “Not Yet!”
The film has a lot of virtues, but it doesn’t entirely work. It is more of a character study and examination of aging than a traditional conflict driven narrative. The dramatic pull he brought to his earlier work diminished in the later part of his career especially once he started becoming the sole screenwriter, but Madadayo is the film that suffers most from these tendencies. The first half of the film is maybe a little slow, overly sincere and sentimental, but it works on it’s own terms and if viewers are willing to put down their defenses it’s quite charming. Though in the second half the film’s momentum stops dead and never recovers. It all has to do with a sequence about a missing cat.
In retirement Matsumura and his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) adopt a stray cat that wanders into their garden. They dote on it as if it were their child. When the cat goes missing, Matsumura descends into a deep depression. His former students and his entire community engage in a futile search. His spirits are finally lifted when he adopts a new cat. This sequence is one of the weakest in Kurosawa filmography. It’s also the greatest conflict in the film and doesn’t read as believable. Even comparing this development to everything else in this film, the obstacle of the missing cat feels small. At this point of the film they had already survived World War II by living in a shack, so a missing cat feels inconsequential.
Kurosawa might be trying to emphasize as dramatic irony how small the tragedy is compared to the severity of Matsumura’s depression (refusing to bath as to not disrupt the cat’s bed). Only it doesn’t read that way. The former students and members of the community act as if the lost cat is the tragic problem that must be solved, not Matsumura’ fragile mental state, which is the real problem. The biggest issue with the section, though is that it kills momentum of an already laid back film by going on for too long. The whole sequence is over a half hour long.
The two “Not Yet” parties are the highlight and soul of the movie. The first celebrates Matsumura’s 61st birthday. The war has ended, Americans have occupied the country, and he’s been reduced to living in a shack. The job that had defined him, teacher, has come to an end. The rest of his life should be just an epilogue. This party organized by his former students is the film’s statement of purpose. In Kurosawa’s hands it becomes a celebration to the act of living. Matsumura is seated in as the guest of honor next to two men who he needs in order to die, his doctor and his priest.
The party centers around the huge glass of beer and defiant “Not Yet”, but it’s not one event that makes a party. The night is filled with songs, testimonials, witticisms, and one student who insists on reciting every stop on a railway line simultaneous to all the other action.
It feels like an actual party, one that grows in legend with each person’s retelling. The night climaxes when former students create a mock funeral procession. Once they reach Matsumura the disciple playing the corpse jumps up and starts engaging in the childhood back and forth “Are you ready?” and “Not Yet”. Kurosawa frames the action with quick intercut shots of the students and their professor. The camera keeps moving the focus of each shot closer to their chanting counterpart while zooming in. This creates a joyous climax to the party, marking the last bravado sequence of Kurosawa’s career. But the first party only truly gains significance in light of the final party.
The final scenes of the movie are at the “Not Yet” party for his 77th birthday. A lot of the aspects are the same: the doctor and the priest on each side of him, the glass of beer, the childhood rhythm exchanged. Yet everything is older. Instead of the energetic army of former students seated at two long tables, it’s a bunch of families seated at smaller, circular tables as if they are at a wedding.
What was once a chaotic explosion is now simply a pleasant obligation. Joyousness is replaced with respectability. The final party lives in the shadow of the first party and through contrast gives the first party a greater meaning. The first party becomes a noble ode to living that is all the more poignant because decline and death are inevitable. In the final party death is quite near. Matsumura becomes ill in the middle of the party and his wife must carry him home. But death isn’t quite there. His doctor thinks he’s stable. The final moments of the film are his dream where he is a young boy playing the game that gives the movie its title. Then he looks out to the clouds, which are all paintings Kurosawa made. The movie in its final moments confirms itself as an ode to the restless hunger of life.
A lot of Kurosawa films are about protagonists refusing to shrink in the face of terrible odds, be it the villagers in Seven Samurai, Mifune’s cop in Stray Dog, or Shimura’s fight against bureaucracy in Ikiru. Here the protagonist is fighting against two of the most basic aspects of existence, time and death. These are battles he cannot win, but there is heroism in devoting himself to living and embracing experiences when he could simply sit on his laurels and wait for death. His story in many ways mirrors Kurosawa’s. When Kurosawa turned 60 in 1970 he had made epics (Seven Samurai), experiments (Rashomon), and intimate character dramas (Ikiru), which made him one of the most famous directors in the world. He created a respectable body of work and with the lack of funding coming his way, he could have retired. But his creative hunger fueled him to continue to work while his financial and physical fortunes deteriorated. He made films that were different than his earlier work. He pushed himself to make movies that were different in structure (Dodes’ka-Den, & Dreams) in langue and culture (Dersu Uzala) while making his largest (Kagemusha & Ran) and smallest (Rhapsody in August & Madadayo) scale films. It’s worth noting just how different his last film is from his previous 29. It’s a mediation of a film which takes the time to watch the seasons change. Even Kurosawa’s most death obsessed (Ikiru) or slow paced (Rhapsody in August) films don’t have contemplative tone like Madadayo. Kurosawa had spent a career chronicling mentor student relationships, be it cops in Stray Dog, Samurai in Seven Samurai, or doctors in Red Beard, but with Madadayo it’s different. The focus in the previous films were on the development of the students. Here it focuses on the life of the type of man who would become a mentor. At 83 (six years older than Matsumura at the end of the film) Kurosawa made a film that is an ode to someone like himself, a mentor with the eager adventurousness of a youth.
Matsumura gives a strong central performance. The biggest hurdle with portraying a character this eccentric and childlike is making him feel like a real human, which Matsumura does. He had only worked with Kurosawa once before as the disabled businessman in Dodes’ka-Den. It is a little disappointing Kurosawa didn’t cast someone he had more of a history with, which would have given the film more power. However by casting Kyoko Kagawa as the wife of the retired professor Kurosawa managed to highlight a performer he had worked with since 1957. She doesn’t have a lot of dialogue here, but she is a constant presence, an avatar of good will, which she was also in The Lower Depths, The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low. Here Kurosawa gives her one last chance to be a figure of decency. Hisashi Igawa and Akira Terao round out the recurring players as two of the most devoted students.
Madadayo is Kurosawa’s last film and it should be a viewer’s last film of his to watch. That is not because it’s his worst film, but because it works best as a coda to this artist’s rich, humane, and exciting body of work. It is a simple ode to the act of refusing defeat and embracing life.
Madadayo available to stream in Hulu and Filmstruck. It’s only available on DVD in the U.S. as part of Criterion’s 25 film box set collection of Kurosawa’s work.