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.