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Madadayo: Irony

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    Ugetsu

    As I won’t be around for much of this month, please excuse this poorly thought through starter question:

    From my reading on Madadayo (mainly Richie and recently, Prince), there seems to be an agreement that Madadayo is deliberately lacking in any form of irony, i.e there is no surface meaning below the actions of the Sensei and his pupils (if I understand them correctly).

    But what immediately struck me when watching this for the first time was the obliviousness of all the characters to how ridiculous it was for the Professor to be so upset at the loss of a cat, when he seemingly floated through the firebombing of Tokyo with equanimity (and not a word or action said or done for the numerous victims). The interpretations I’ve read is that the ‘cat’ episode is part of the demonstration of the purity of his soul, and how he brings out the best in people. But it seems to me that it made the unquestioning support of his students seem quite dubious. He may have been a wonderful man and teacher, but he was also in many ways immature and even narcissistic.

    Am I right in reading an ironic subtext into the movie that Kurosawa was gently satirising the followers for their lack of perspective? Or was he just celebrating the pureness of their love for the man?

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    cocoskyavitch

    Lack of irony is one of the things I find so astonishing about Kurosawa films. Even Ozu uses irony…in fact, it adds a level of sophistication to his humor and a pathos to his drama that Kurosawa lacks. What I do love about Kurosawa, though, is his apparent lack of irony.

    The purity of his filmmaking is like the purity of the Professor-immature and narcissistic, sure, but darn it, he means it. He’s for real. It is utterly amazing that in the 90’s someone could make a film so completely devoid of sarcasm and irony, which has, at its core, sincerity, kindness and respect as its main points! What? How is it even possible?

    I think it is the kind of film that should make you call your mother, or a friend you’ve not seen in a while, or someone you’ve ignored for too long because it is about the sweetness of human relationships. Beyond all of it is the human bond (yes, including with one’s cat! How stupid we all must look with our pets! My cat is the boss of me, for sure…I am merely her servant!)

    Madadayo is a very thinly diguised or not even disguised at all self-portrait, isn’t it?. Sensei is Kurosawa-but, as Kurosawa would like to be.

    But, I seriously doubt that Kurosawa received the kind of unabashed love that the professor enjoyed. Ya think?

    I am sure that he had colleagues loyal to him…Teruyo Nogami, for example. But, I wonder…in her writing I don’t get quite the feeling of that warmth and love for Kurosawa. Maybe love for the life, for the work, for the activity, the travel…I may be reading this wrong, please correct me if I am.

    But, as Yojimbo has Freudian “wish-fulfilment” tendencies, so does Madadayo. The last scene-the child (we all are children at times in our dreams-vulnerable, small, in a bewildering world) seeing the sunset-makes me dissolve into tears every time. I mourn Kurosawa in this film!

    Yes, Ugetsu, it is impossible that someone could make this film and not intend irony, and yet-there it is-not ironic, not sarcastic or bitter.

    The film tells us that human beings are worthy of love, despite their quirks. The specific relationship of teacher-student that we get in various forms in many Kurosawa films is reprised here in the saddest, gentlest, (yes, most Ozu-like) way. (Kurosawa has become a bit of a bore as a storyteller…some of the celebration scenes aren’t interesting at all, and go on forever…still, what lingers is a sense that this meant something to the old professor…that these rituals had deep meaning for the old man, and also for the former students, by extension.) What a heartbreaker. I feel it as if Kurosawa were saying to me, directly, “I am so sorry to be leaving! I had a lot of other things I wanted to do!”

    But, tell me, Ugetsu, what is it saying when the child becomes enthralled with the colors of the sky? Is almost seems to belie the existential humanist positions that I think are taken by most of Kurosawa’s films. It almost points to some overwhelming beauty that one can join if one gives up playing the game in an earthly dimension. What do you think that last scene means?

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    Ugetsu

    But, tell me, Ugetsu, what is it saying when the child becomes enthralled with the colors of the sky? Is almost seems to belie the existential humanist positions that I think are taken by most of Kurosawa’s films. It almost points to some overwhelming beauty that one can join if one gives up playing the game in an earthly dimension. What do you think that last scene means?

    I wish I knew! I must admit that ending completely blew me away. I was very puzzled by the film, quite unsure as to whether I liked it or not. There was a bit of me that was (is) a little disturbed that Kurosawa seemed compelled to justify himself in this way – one way of looking at it is that it is almost a plea for love, for understanding. if the teacher really is meant to be Kurosawa, then that seems the only real interpretation, which I find it very sad. I prefer to think that its a misunderstanding to confuse Kurosawa with him – the film was more a paean to ordinary human goodness. Or, as I suspected for a while, it was intended at least in part as a gentle satire on hero worship (I find it hard to maintain that interpretation, but its one I would like to believe).

    As to the ending – it really is extraordinarily opaque. The only explanation I can think of is that it is intended to represent the circularity in life (a bit like Princes theory about Red Beard, which I’ve just been reading over dinner). The old man cries ‘Madadayo’, while slowly falling into death, while the young boy cries ‘Madadayo’, while facing the terrors and mystery of adulthood.

    One thing it does remind me in a roundabout way is the magnificent final sequence in Joyces short story The Dead’ (also reproduced word for word as the final scene in John Hustons movie of the story), whereby the character Gabriel Conroy, in discovering that the true love of his wife is a long dead boy she knew, stares out the window of his hotel watching snow fall, recalling the weather forecast of ‘snow being general throughout Ireland’. His thoughts run to the Galway graveyard of the boy, following the pagan symbolism of the ancient routes across Ireland. But Kurosawa is steeped in Buddhist imagery of endless cycles, Joyce was thinking of the final ending, the journey to the west, borrowed by Irish Christians from the pagans.

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    cocoskyavitch

    What a beautiful post, Ugetsu. There is something like a perfume you evoke when bringing up images from Joyce’s story.

    The congruence in the two stories, though unlikely and not obvious…a “kinship” of feeling about time and the “mono-no-aware” passing of all things on earth. Can’t quite wrap language around it…seems like a blunt instrument in my hands…Thanks for the reminder about The Dead, and your very beautifully written and poetic observations. And, your point is interesting-both the old man and young boy cry “Not Yet” the old man becomes the young boy, but is simultaneously still old…circular turnings of the Dharma wheel..maybe that’s it…

    On a personal note: If Kurosawa is the professor as wish-fulfilment, then it is a sad and strangely indulgent film, seen on the surface. I do think the bigger message of kindness and humanity though, is quite bold. A bit like Ikiru in trespassing into the didactic when examining the personal, and all the more forceful for it.

    I am sorry to say that I believe Kurosawa was sad that he was not loved quite like the professor in Madadayo. I remember an interview, Kurosawa’s fingers holding a cigarette, one of those late interviews with the dark glasses and sweater-and he was regretting not having had any real “students”…I recall the silence after his words fell…I think Kurosawa had some regrets. I think he was a man with more than a few regrets. Just my impression. His sadness does not make me respect him one whit less.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: From my reading on Madadayo (mainly Richie and recently, Prince), there seems to be an agreement that Madadayo is deliberately lacking in any form of irony, i.e there is no surface meaning below the actions of the Sensei and his pupils (if I understand them correctly).

    Ugetsu has picked a very interesting point for discussion here.

    What I understand from Richie and Prince is that, for them, the lack of irony is the result of Kurosawa’s later films not including the multiple contradictory voices that the earlier works present to us. In their view, Dreams, Rhapsody in August and Madadayo are too direct, too didactic, and too preachy. They present, rather than question and problematise, which was what led to the type of delicious irony present in Kurosawa’s earlier works.

    But I am not entirely sure if I agree with this view. Yes, it is true that towards the end of his career Kurosawa’s narration becomes more single-threaded and drops some of the apparent presentational complexities of the earlier movies. And there is certainly also more sentimentality in the later films, which Kurosawa wrote on his own, without his usual co-writers keeping him in check.

    Yet, what I don’t fully see is how dropping the earlier multi-layered presentation of a subject, where multiple points of view were proposed within a single work, necessarily makes Kurosawa preachy or overly didactic. After all, something like fly-on-the-wall documentaries often present us with just one point of view, that of the subject, yet the audience is certainly expected to come to their own conclusions about the material. Similarly, I don’t think that what Richie calls Kurosawa’s “straightforward presentation” in these later films necessitates us viewing the works as “straightforward statements”.

    So, yes, I would say that an ironic subtext can certainly still exist within the movie, even if the film maker is not explicitly pointing a finger at it any more.

    Ugetsu: how ridiculous it was for the Professor to be so upset at the loss of a cat, when he seemingly floated through the firebombing of Tokyo with equanimity (and not a word or action said or done for the numerous victims). The interpretations I’ve read is that the ‘cat’ episode is part of the demonstration of the purity of his soul, and how he brings out the best in people. But it seems to me that it made the unquestioning support of his students seem quite dubious. He may have been a wonderful man and teacher, but he was also in many ways immature and even narcissistic.

    To be honest, I don’t actually see the cat episode as all that ridiculous. This may be because of personal experiences.

    But think of it in this way: If it had been a child that was missing, I don’t think that anyone would question either the effort put into trying to find Nora, or Uchida’s response to the loss. While many may value a cat life less than a human life, for the childless couple Nora was all that they had, which is something that also they point out at one point.

    The question then becomes this: when helping someone, are you doing it primarily in order to accomplish something the importance of which you fully agree on, or are you rather doing it for the person you are helping? Personally, I would say that when looking for a friend’s lost cat, I am first and foremost trying to bring happiness to my friend. The lost cat is, in this case, a secondary matter.

    Consequently, I would suggest that the fact that it is a cat everyone is looking for is quite irrelevant. It could just as well be a child, or a pot of gold. The target of the search makes no difference, if the goal is to bring happiness.

    Which leads us back to the question why Nora means so much to Uchida. In addition to the cat clearly being a central part of the family, what apparently magnifies Uchida’s grief is his writer’s ability to imagine what horrors could have happened to Nora.

    Another point to consider is that Uchida himself recognizes his apparent foolishness and immaturity in missing Nora, yet comments that he cannot do anything about it. Maybe this is understandable as he has, after all, just been “reborn” (one’s 60th birthday being traditionally viewed in Japan as one’s “second birth”).

    Ugetsu: As to the ending – it really is extraordinarily opaque. The only explanation I can think of is that it is intended to represent the circularity in life (a bit like Princes theory about Red Beard, which I’ve just been reading over dinner). The old man cries ‘Madadayo’, while slowly falling into death, while the young boy cries ‘Madadayo’, while facing the terrors and mystery of adulthood.

    It is indeed an ending left open for interpretation. I am not even sure if what we witness in the end is a death. The real-life Hyakken Uchida lived to be 81, which means that he should still have more than four years left after that night of the 77th birthday. Assuming, of course, that the film is biographical.

    In any case it seems quite clear that the final scene is Uchida’s dream. It is interesting that, on his 77th birthday, he would have a dream where he (or so I assume) is hiding from seven figures in the distance who are calling for him, and when he finally finds a place to hide, he witnesses something that is quite out of this world in its beauty. Prince (338) suggests that what the final scene portrays is Uchida’s acceptance of death, a place where death “holds no terror, brings no anguish, heralds no grief”.

    Yoshimoto (374), meanwhile, notes that this final scene brings us back to the clouds in Sanshiro Sugata, and therefore back to the beginning of Kurosawa’s career (thus setting into motion an endless cycle of its own), but I feel that this is quite contrived an interpretation.

    To me, the scene that most resembles the ending of Madadayo is actually the ending of Ikiru, which we have just been watching and discussing. Also that film ends with a lingering shot of tranquil clouds, and I have always felt that those clouds express the peace that Watanabe has now finally been able to achieve with himself. That peace, I feel, is also a part of the clouds in Madadayo.

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    Ugetsu

    Thank you for that, Coco – I wish I did express it beautifully! The Dead is one work of art that always moves me, in ways I can’t always express. By an odd coincidence, just after writing that post I found my hardback copy of ‘Dubliners’ at the bottom of a bag I’d lent to a friend, I completely forgot that I’d given it to her. I must reread it again.

    Vili, I think you are entirely correct – I’ve allowed my own dislike of cats to influence my critical faculties! I can understand how someone can get so upset over the loss, I think I was slightly disturbed at how the portrayal of the Tokyo Firebombing managed to avoid the gigantic human loss – but I do think (on reflection) that Kurosawa felt that it wasn’t right for the film to show the impact directly. The image of the burnt out mansion is a very powerful one.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: I think I was slightly disturbed at how the portrayal of the Tokyo Firebombing managed to avoid the gigantic human loss – but I do think (on reflection) that Kurosawa felt that it wasn’t right for the film to show the impact directly. The image of the burnt out mansion is a very powerful one.

    I have been thinking about this in relation to how Richie and Prince view Kurosawa’s late movies, namely that these films are, as I quoted earlier, “straightforward presentation”. Like I tried to express earlier, I don’t fully agree with their view, and would rather suggest that even if Kurosawa is no more presenting us with conflicting views, we do not need to equate the views presented on screen with those the film itself wishes to communicate.

    While Richie’s “straightforward presentation” is not actually directly meant as a comment on the films’ narrative constructs, it is interesting how little “straightforward presentation” Madadayo actually employs in the end. In fact, when you think about it, Madadayo is really quite a very strange film considering that it is supposed to be biographical.

    First of all, it only follows a part of its subject’s life, and tells us nothing about what happened before or after. Secondly, even within the part of Uchida’s life that the film does show us, it pretty much skips past all the major events. In the end, the film then shows us very little. Even Nora’s disappearance is only narrated, never actually shown. And so, instead of “presentation”, the focus is almost solely on the conversations, on the way these characters reflect on what has happened or, perhaps more often, how what has happened is reflected on them.

    Ugetsu: The Dead is one work of art that always moves me, in ways I can’t always express.

    Perhaps I need to dig up my copy of Dubliners and give it, and especially its last story, another chance. I had a professor who was extremely enthusiastic about the book, yet my own experience with it has been fairly negative (I think I read it twice).

    Then again, and I am sorry to say this Ugetsu, but James Joyce never quite did it for me as a writer. From the modernists, it was always rather Virginia Woolf I would admire and enjoy. I can, however, tell you that Joyce’s friend and fellow Parisian Samuel Beckett is much higher on my list. And higher yet is W. B. Yeats, who I consider one of my favourites, so at least I am not entirely ignorant of Irish literature even if I, in spite of what I would say has been considerable effort, fail to appreciate Joyce’s greatness.

    But I think that another chance for Dubliners would be appropriate, not only because it has been a few years since my last try, but also because you have now made it relevant to understanding Kurosawa. 😉

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    Fred

    Vili: It is indeed an ending left open for interpretation. I am not even sure if what we witness in the end is a death. The real-life Hyakken Uchida lived to be 81, which means that he should still have more than four years left after that night of the 77th birthday. Assuming, of course, that the film is biographical.

    The final scenes: Death, acceptance of death… or something different altogether?

    Here is one cultural observation I had not been aware of until I asked a Japanese friend unfamiliar with the film to watch the DVD. She told me that she was convinced the professor was dying when she saw that the boy playing hide and seek was wearing a white garment, i.e. the clothing Japanese morticians traditionally dress the deceased in.

    I still believe that “finally accepting death” remains another probable interpretation.

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    Vili Maunula

    That’s quite interesting, Fred! Considering that the boy thus linked to death by his garments is shouting “not yet”, could the final scene also be interpreted as Uchida still not accepting death or being ready for it? I suppose the answer to that lies in how we interpret the final image of the clouds.

    I haven’t seen the film since we last watched it, so this is just working from memory. I did watch the final scene though, and like I mentioned earlier in this thread, it indeed seems like there are 7 kids chasing the dream-avatar of a 77 year old man in a film that has taken us through 17 birthdays. What’s up with number 7 here? If intentional, Kurosawa couldn’t of course have chosen a more loaded number!

    Back when we last discussed the film, we also touched upon the question how autobiographically we should interpret Madadayo. Doing some maths here, I was wondering now if it is significant that the film starts in 1943, the year Kurosawa released his first film, and ends in 1966, when Kurosawa’s contract with Toho came to an end and he launched an ultimately unsuccessful attempt at making films in Hollywood, a point that could be considered a major turning point in Kurosawa’s career. Also, the real life Hyakken Uchida died in 1971, the year Kurosawa himself had a brush with death through his attempted suicide. But this may well be reading too much into the story.

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