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Film Club: Madadayo (Akira Kurosawa, 1993)

Madadayo
May 2015 marks the beginning of the eighth year at the Akira Kurosawa online film club, our little corner of the internet where we discuss films by Kurosawa and others. This month’s edition is significant in another way as well, for it also marks the end of our second cycle through Kurosawa’s oeuvre.

Despite his last two films, Dreams and Rhapsody in August, not having garnered the same kind of international critical and commercial success that his 1980s epics had enjoyed, Kurosawa wasted no time moving onto his next project, to be called Madadayo, or “Not Yet”. Based on autobiographical essays by Japanese author and academic Hyakken Uchida (1889-1971), the film follows the life of the Japanese professor of German through the Second World War and beyond, centring on yearly birthday celebrations that he holds with his former students. These celebrations give the film its name, as each year the protagonist declares his lack of intention to die yet, a topic that was becoming increasingly familiar also for the film’s 83-year-old director. The production was announced in early 1992 and filming began in February that year, progressing ahead of schedule and wrapping by the end of September.

Madadayo‘s release on April 17, 1993 was greeted by a somewhat disappointed reaction similar to what had been given to his two previous works, and it received delayed and largely low key releases abroad. In Japan, the film nonetheless gathered seven Japanese Academy Award nominations, winning four of them, as well as taking home two acting awards at the Blue Ribbon Awards.

Just like with the other films of Kurosawa’s late era, Madadayo has since garnered an increasingly more understanding reception and today it is often celebrated for its quietly contemplative statement on ageing, wisdom and tolerance. As Richie and Wild point out, it is also a very funny film, although its numerous puns and culturally bound jokes do not always translate well.

As it is Kurosawa’s final work, it is not surprising that some writer such as Wild and Yoshimoto have also suggested that the film is on some level autobiographical and contains references to Kurosawa’s life and previous work. Yoshimoto also draws attention to the film’s use of nature, arguing that Madadayo was the only instance in Kurosawa’s oeuvre that nature was represented straightforwardly and not overtly psychologised or used as a metaphor.

Many commentators have written about the film’s episodic nature, with Prince noting that despite its historical authenticity, the film treats most of its historical background off-screen, concentrating on private spaces and showing very little of the social changes taking place as the story progresses. Both the war and the post-war rebuilding are reduced to background elements.

Prince also discusses the film’s intertextual connection with Kamo no Chōmei’s classic 13th century book The Ten Foot Square Hut (Hōjōki), drawing parallels between the protagonist of Kurosawa’s film and that of Chōmei, who withdrew from society at a time of great social calamity.

Two scenes in the film have receives particular attention from commentators. The first of these is the montage that shows the progression of seasons as the professor and his wife spend time at their tiny hut. Prince calls this “a scene of breath-stopping beauty, and … the aesthetic and ethical heart of the film.” (335) The other much discussed scene is the film’s final scene, which depicts the professor’s dream in which children (assumedly the professor’s younger self) are playing the hide and seek game which the film’s name references. It is a magical and poetic scene which is made especially beautiful by a backdrop of colourful clouds, not natural but painted on the set by Kurosawa himself. It is these clouds which remain the final shot of the film and Kurosawa’s career.

Madadayo has also been discussed previously here at Akira Kurosawa info. A list of our previous discussion topics can be found behind the Madadayo forum tag.

Although Madadayo was ultimately the last film that Kurosawa ever directed, he continued to work after its release. In 1993, Kurosawa wrote a screenplay titled The Sea is Watching (Umi wa miteita), and in 1995 completed the writing of After the Rain (Ame agaru), neither of which he would be able to film. We will be discussing the two films in the June and July. For the exact schedule, see the film club page.


Discussion

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Shintsurezuregusa

I know the background behind this film but have never actually seen it. Will pick up a copy next week.

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Longstone

I have the Winstar DVD ( American, I think from quite a few years ago) the picture quality is terrible by today’s standards which seems a shame for something from relatively modern times.
Does anyone know if there is a better version available anywhere these days?

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Vili Maunula

Shintsurezuregusa: Lovely, I look forward hearing your first impressions!

Longstone: The Criterion release from the AK100 collection is slightly better (more accurate colours, less vertical cropping — you can see comparisons here) but it is not available on its own. The 2007 Yume Pictures release from the UK is pretty similar to Winstar. The Japanese Blu-ray release is probably the best overall release out there, but it has no English subtitles. I think (but don’t know for sure) that the Italian Blu-ray release uses the Japanese transfer, but again it has only Italian subtitles.

As with Rhapsody in August, we keep waiting for an English friendly release that would do the film justice.

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Ugetsu

I just watched it again (I have the Yume Pictures version which is ok, but not great), and my feelings are very similar to my first reactions when I watched it more than five years ago. I found it both irritating and emotionally very powerful. By irritating, I mean that I find the film’s structure very odd, occasionally very overlong – for me the central party scene seems to go on forever (a little like being sober at a particularly raucous party). But as with the first time, I found the ending immensely powerful and emotional, despite its opacity. The acting is often very over the top, and on this viewing I’m more convinced than ever that it the theatricality and artificiality of the set design, cinematography and blocking was very deliberate, although to what end I really don’t know.

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Shintsurezuregusa

Picked up my Directors Suite copy today and will watch this evening. Hoping not to be too disappointed.

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Shintsurezuregusa

I have just finished watching Maadadayo and I can’t really say that I liked it. I had to keep reminding myself that this film was made in 1993 – it looked much, much older. I don’t think that this had as much to do with the DVD transfer which in my copy looks almost like a colourized black and white film as the fact that it was shot in such an old-fashioned way. Many of Kurosawa’s films are timeless and the way that they are shot are more interesting than many films made today but perhaps at 83 years old Kurosawa was finally showing his age. When you consider that at the same time films like Reservoir Dogs, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Malcolm X, The Crying Game etc were being released in the west, Maadadayo looks like a film made in the 1940s.I wonder if I would have appreciated it more if it had been made in black and white…

On this viewing I’m more convinced than ever that it the theatricality and artificiality of the set design, cinematography and blocking was very deliberate, although to what end I really don’t know.

I got the impression that the stage direction and scene-composition was inspired by Rakugo plays.

Rakugo

The orator sits on a cushion centre-stage and tells a humorous or touching story at length and the audience laughs along. I think that this is what accounts for the often single-take monologues in the film. I felt that Kurosawa perhaps wanted us, the audience, to feel that we were sitting alongside the professor’s on-screen audience to listen to his stories; That’s why the shots are composed the way that they are, sometimes with someone sitting in front of us almost blocking our view of the performer just as if we were at a Rakugo performance.

EDIT: I have just realized that Vili made the same point as I make below over six years ago in the forum regarding the “laugh track” I’ll keep what I said anyway.

I think that we are expected to laugh when the audience on screen laughs – the same way Western sit-coms have laugh tracks – except that, for me, I found the fake smiles and laughter of the professor’s students annoying (even more so than laugh tracks on sit-coms). There is probably a reason why the characters in comedies very rarely laugh at each other’s jokes. Something that I don’t like about a lot of the jokes in the film is that the punchline – often visual – is explained (the expression on the horse’s face when the professor is buying horse meat, should have been enough; similarly, the scene of the empty banquet hall with the one student reciting all the train stations should have been enough – we don’t need the professor’s explanation) – and then the audience laughs. These sort of oji-san gags (dad jokes) have dated terribly but I think that they were already old-fashioned when the film was made.

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BMWRider

I suppose I should admit upfront that this film has a special place in my heart. Though it is AK’s last film, it was one of the first I watched. I remember seeing Siskel and Ebert’s review of Ran on television and was caught up in the beauty of the trailers. When I got a chance to see it at the theater, I jumped on it. I was in my early 20s at the time and Kurosawa was a modern film director in my mind, not some old timer like Hitchcock (little did I know). I caught Madadyo at an independent theater in Baltimore (I believe) and liked it. I later realized the world of film that had passed me by and caught up. When Madadyo came out on DVD I grabbed (first on a Chinese bootleg and later as a real release). I suppose the movie is special to me because I saw it as a theater experience, I realize that is probably anti-intellectual but I make no apologies.

I realize as many have pointed out that there are technical problems with the film. The budget hurt the production quality, it looks to be filmed on the cheap, and honestly I wonder if Kurosawa’s vision was starting to fail him. I know that the audio track is trying at best. Yet there are moments in this film where the artistry is striking. Yes the hut scene and the scene with the children are wonderful. But there are others I enjoy, the dance through the hall, the college style chug, and the “subterfuge” of the students. All of them are memorable to me.

I suppose in the end, for all of its flaws, it is the story that gets to me. I like the message of the film, “do not go gentle into that good night.” I oftentimes wonder what it was like to be a national treasure, yet have your artistry ignored by a modern public that could not give a crap for anything that was not 30+ years old. Yes, we have Kagemusha and Ran, but so many of AK’s later films suffer from poor production values because money was not available. I see Madadyo as a charming “middle finger” extended to the entire film industry. Kind of a “you will not put me on a shelf, there is a lot left within me.” I am not ready to give up on my art, not yet!

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Ugetsu

Thats an interesting insight, BMWRider. I suspect that I would have liked the film more if it had been the first Kurosawa film I’ve seen. Its a film I want to like more than I truly do. I do think that its probably much better if you are Japanese, by which I mean that I understand the dialogue is terrific, but impossible to translate, and there are far more ‘cultural’ references than is normal in a Kurosawa film, making it quite difficult to penetrate for a non-Japanese. Thats my understanding anyway.

I don’t know much about the budget it has, but I suspect that much of the ‘cheapness’ of the film was partly deliberate – Kurosawa seemed to be going for a deliberately ‘stagy’ setting, for the reasons discussed in the other threads. Of course, it may be that he was trying to make the best of a bad situation.

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Vili Maunula

I finally watched Madadayo for this month and I must say that I still retain a soft spot for Kurosawa’s final films. There is something that resonates with me really strongly in both Rhapsody in August and Madadayo, as well as the two filmed screenplays that he wrote afterwards. I’m not really sure what it is, but I feel at home when watching them, even more so than with most of his other films.

Madadayo is not a perfect film by any means, but at least it is an extremely assured one. It does what it wants to without any second guessing, and I respect that. The charming middle finger that BMWRider mentioned.

The pacing is a good example: the film starts as an episodic comedy, a barrage of puns and visual gags, and then about half-way through suddenly grinds to a complete halt when a cat who hasn’t really played much part in the story disappears. It’s like an entirely different film for a good while, only to pick up again after the lengthy cat episode has been dealt with. It shouldn’t and I guess doesn’t really work, but I love it. (Then again, I have spent the last year driving a cat who has cancer to weekly chemotherapy sessions, so there is that.)

I find it interesting that Shintsurezuregusa considers the film almost like a colourised black and white film. Despite the horror that is the Yume Pictures transfer (still grateful that they made it available of course!), I think that it is actually exquisitely beautiful. The colour palette, especially. It is also for most part marvellously lit, pretty well designed and I think as skilfully staged as any Kurosawa film. I really like the acting.

But it is also true that it is at times something like a rakugo performance, as Shintsurezuregusa suggested.

While the myriad puns and other verbal jokes are heavily underlined, on the visual side the film seems to have some little winks that go unexplained. One of my favourites is the scene where the American soldiers and other onlookers hear the professor’s party and peek in to see what is happening. These people who come from outside seem like caricatures of period film characters. The way that they are dressed and the way that they move is very different from the main characters. It is a strange contrast and I don’t know what it’s doing there, but it’s really quite interesting. The same can be said of the gangsters who tried to buy the lot next to Uchida’s. They appear to belong to a totally different film.

It is a pity that only one of Hyakken Uchida’s books seems to be available in English. I would very much like to know how much of the humour is his and how much of it comes from Kurosawa. There definitely is that “dad joke” quality to the jokes that Shintsurezuregusa mentioned, but I think it’s the type of humour that Kurosawa’s films have always had.

As for the budget, Madadayo wasn’t really filmed on a shoestring budget. Galbraith quotes $11.9 million, which is around the same sum as Kurosawa’s budgets had been for Kagemusha ($11 million), Ran ($11.5 million), Dreams ($12 million) and Rhapsody in August ($10 million). I don’t think that the sums have been adjusted for inflation, but if these numbers are accurate, Madadayo certainly wasn’t a low budget operation.

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Shintsurezuregusa

Vili, I read your wonderful introduction to Scandal a couple of days ago before watching the film for the first time and thought that something you noted about Stephen Prince’s analysis of Scandal might relate to Maadadayo, specifically, the idea of “technique.” Prince says of Scandal that it was a reaction to the “formal energy” of Stray Dog which, for Kurosawa, apparently, was a film, “too full of technique.”

I wonder if, similarly, Maadadayo was also a film where Kurosawa wanted to go beyond technique; especially in comparison to something like Dreams, Maadadayo is for the most part pared back to the barest essentials: generally, a single speaker delivering dialogue to an audience, or an image without dialogue at all. This sort of “minimalism” also corresponds to the aesthetics of Hojoki. I’m reminded of that Zen saying by Rinzai,

“Before I sought enlightenment, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers.
While I sought enlightenment, the mountains were not mountains and the rivers were not rivers.
After I attained enlightenment, the mountains were mountains and the rivers were rivers.”

In Kurosawa’s case, after the complexity of technique required in many of his later films – Ran, Kagemusha, Dreams, etc – in which he pushed the richness of his style to the limit and with nothing left to prove, he reached a sort of “peace with world,” (or enlightenment, to continue the metaphor). Thus, Kurosawa, now at the end of his life, could move beyond technique and reveal the, simpler, “essential truths” of Maadadayo. Or, perhaps, that was what he was hoping the film would convey, at least, when he chose Uchida’s life as his source material.

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Vili Maunula

It could well be that. I think Kurosawa was also pretty exhausted after Ran and may have decided that at the age of 80 he was simply no longer capable of tackling epic productions. Never quite comfortable with averages, he may have then naturally gravitated towards the opposite end of the spectrum.

Then again, Kurosawa appears not to have seen Madadayo as much of a stylistic departure. In an interview with Fred Marshall for the Kinema magazine there is the following question and answer:

Q: Have you changed your style in any way in Madadayo?
A: No, I have not changed my form of expression.
(Interviews, 186)

Of course, one could quite easily argue that it is the epics of the 1980s as well as Dreams that are the actual exceptions, and Rhapsody in August and Madadayo are in fact closer to Kurosawa’s films of the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

The following two questions are also quite relevant for the understanding of Kurosawa’s intentions with Madadayo:

Q: What is your overall feeling about life in the world today?
A: My overall feeling about life in the world today is something that you can see in my work ever since Dersu Uzala, in which the main character laments what human beings are doing to destroy their natural environment. One of my deepest concerns is that if we go on doing what we have been doing, very soon there will be no world for us to live in. Let me give you and example of what I mean. In the brook that flows through the center of the village where my father was born, where once lovely grasses grew and flowers bloomed, there is now refuse: tea cups, beer bottles, tin cans, laborers’ rubber shoes, even knee boots. Nature takes good care of her appearance. What makes nature ugly is the behavior of human beings.

Q: What is your new film Madadayo about?
A: Madadayo is a film that describes a hearwarming and pleasant relationship between Professor Hyakken Uchida and his former students. This is something very precious that has all but been forgotten: the enviable world of human hearts as they express themselves in relation to one another. I hope that everybody who sees this motion picture will leave the theatre feeling refreshed, with broad smiles on their faces.

(Interviews, 187)

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