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Madadayo: Kurosawa’s Goodbye?

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    Vili Maunula

    It is understandably tempting to approach Madadayo as “Kurosawa’s final film”, and therefore see it as some kind of an intentional “final statement”, or a deliberate self-referential account that looks back at the director’s own life. Yet, despite various such accounts of the movie, especially from the part of film reviewers, I am personally quite sceptical about any such approach.

    First of all, nothing about Kurosawa’s biography seems to indicate that he was planning Madadayo to be his last, career defining film. In a 1993 interview he mentions plans for a film about the life of Vincent Van Gogh (Cardullo, 186), while Galbraith (635-636) refers to a number of Madadayo period interviews where Kurosawa explicitly states that he still has several film projects that he was considering at the time.

    So, a planned final statement it wasn’t. And neither, it seems, did Kurosawa intend the professor in Madadayo to be seen as standing for him. According to Galbraith:

    Many critics misread Kurosawa’s treatment, claiming that he was positioning himself in the role of the professor. “I had never really realized myself that it would be seen that way,” the director admitted. “I simply wanted to portray a wonderful person. I don’t want to teach lessons.” In fact, the character is much more like that of Seiji Tachikawa, Kurosawa’s own beloved teacher, and in later scenes Uchida bears a physical resemblance to Kajiro Yamamoto. Uchida and the director share many of the same concerns that all men do in their old age, but Kurosawa was hardly the soft-spoken, diminutive Uchida. (626)

    I agree with Galbraith here, and although I am hardly an expert on Kurosawa’s private life, I fail to see much Kurosawa in the character of Uchida.

    In the end, I can spot only two instances in the film that I might consider self-referential — if only there was more support for a biographical reading of the film. One is that the film begins in 1943, which is the year when Kurosawa’s first film Sanshiro Sugata was released. The second point is the name of the first cat, Nora, which we are told comes from the term “nora neko”, or stray cat, a potential reference to the 1949 film Stray Dog, or “nora inu”. But with the rest of the film seemingly lacking other such references, I wouldn’t make much of these two points.

    As for the teacher-student relationship that is often pointed out as supposedly making the film self-referential, I don’t quite see how it would apply here. For one, I don’t really see much of a teacher-student relation in the movie — while it is true that the characters include a former teacher and his students, I fail to recognize any actual transfer of knowledge or wisdom between them, which is at the heart of any story built on a proper sensei-seito relationship. Secondly, there are many other Kurosawa movies that actually make use of a more straightforward teacher-student theme, yet they are not typically seen in this self-referential way, as if Kurosawa was positioning himself as the teacher and his audience as the pupil. Indeed, in many if not most of Kurosawa’s teacher-student pairs the movies are anything but clear about whether Kurosawa fully agrees with the views and the advice given by the teacher character (or any character for that matter).

    In the end, I fail to see any justification for giving Madadayo a reading that would suggest that the film was either a planned final statement, or a particularly self-referential exercise for the director. While I of course tolerate any interpretation, in my view we are better off not restricting our readings of Madadayo by forcing it the label “Kurosawa’s last film”.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili, I have to say this is the one of the few comments I’ve read about Madadayo that makes complete sense. I agree completely.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Hmmmm. Vili, Ugetsu, I understand, and applaud your call for caution, but disagree that the film is not self-referential. But, first, I want to examine a statement:

    Vili said,

    “For one, I don’t really see much of a teacher-student relation in the movie “

    I would have to disagree strongly there. The film shows us not the formative part of the student-teacher relationship, but, rather, the friendship student-teacher relationship that occurs sometimes with one’s favorites after the period of training is over. I should hate for those men to be stuck as “students” into middle age. They deserve to be friends-and, good friends they are-but a quality of the former pupil-teacher relationship informs the friendship-making it a different relationship from other friendships. So, maybe the “teaching” part is over-but everything about the friendships are informed by the student-teacher relationships.

    I have friendships with former students, and it is always there-the former teacher-pupil relationship is always someplace in the picture, and the nature of these friendships is slightly different than those other friendships of mine with colleagues and former classmates and childhood friends. I am not a genius teacher-not the Uchida of Madadayo-but my subject is art-and that’s seen as irrelevant or taken to heart and something that transforms a person’s sensibility. So, when my students become friends they tend to be those whose sensibilities were transformed by learning about art.

    (Of course, in teaching, all I’ve really tried to do is not feed them too much misinformation, and stay out of the way of their own discoveries. As a lecturer, I tend to be passionate-but I hope I don’t traumatize the kids too much).

    And, that idea, “oh yeah, I transform lives!” could be a big ego-gratifier. But, in actuality, I feel quite humbled and grateful for those friendships, and aware that the ability to appreciate art is a reflection of the magnificence of these students’ hearts and minds, not mine. In short, in my small way, I “get” the Uchida former student friendship thing, and can easily extend my understanding to the special nature of the particular teacher and to Asia.

    Even as a traveler and visitor in Asia I have noted the increased respect accorded teachers. In China I only have to say “Wo shi laoshi” to get the gold carpet treatment. It’s astonishing, really, and I never feel comfortable with it. (American, democrat, all-about-equality, not comfortable with special treatment, “I’m just a stupid slob” kinda thing). So, I get that.

    Allright, so, for me, yes, this is definitely a student-teacher thing. The second part of this is trickier.

    Everyone is entitled to their opinions, and I am not certain that mine are correct, but I feel that Kurosawa is seeing himself in Madadayo. Was he planning it as his swan song? Doubtful. He had other projects n mind. Was he aware that it might be his last? Surely. He was not unaware of how difficult financing was, how the film industry had changed, how his own energies were less.

    The whole thing about Uchida drinking less at the parties…ageing, changing. Living through the war and the post-war period…it may not be that Kurosawa saw himself as Uchida-but Uchida is surely a character sharing some similarities to Kurosawa’s own life experiences! There is a kinship there. And, I again reiterate that I do believe that Kurosawa stated, in an interview, that he regretted not having “students”. So, in a way, I do think Kurosawa made a film about a character that he thought interesting and wonderful, and in some way making the film is a little bit of wish fulfilment.

    I think, but of course, I may be wrong.

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    Ugetsu

    Ah, its nice to have a bit of disagreement, it gets dull if everyone thought the same way.

    My personal reluctance to see the film as a sort of wish fulfilling autobiography is more based on my feelings for Kurosawa – if he felt the need to make such a film, its very sad indeed. But it doesn’t mean its not true. But I am inclined to think that it was genuinely meant as a biography, not autobiography, although there were of course personal elements in it.

    Anyway, this may be my last post for a little while, I’ve a flight to catch to Taipei tomorrow. I’m told that webcafes are quite thin on the ground in Taiwan (since everyone has a laptop), if thats true, I might not be on much – so in the meanwhile Seasons Greetings to everyone and a happy new year. 😀

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    cocoskyavitch

    Have a fabulous time in Taiwan, Ugetsu!

    My friend wrote me frequently from Taiwan when I was on the mainland but I don’t know if he used an internet cafe or the university had wireless or what. (I know I always feel a little crabby about paying for internet when I am traveling abroad…and barely have enough time to read my email, much less participate in a forum like this one..)

    Happy holidays and a very happy New Year!!!!!

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    Vili Maunula

    Coco: The film shows us not the formative part of the student-teacher relationship, but, rather, the friendship student-teacher relationship that occurs sometimes with one’s favorites after the period of training is over. I should hate for those men to be stuck as “students” into middle age. They deserve to be friends-and, good friends they are-but a quality of the former pupil-teacher relationship informs the friendship-making it a different relationship from other friendships. So, maybe the “teaching” part is over-but everything about the friendships are informed by the student-teacher relationships.

    The way I see it, the friendship between Uchida and his former students sure is formal, but I wouldn’t say that it is necessarily more formal than what a relationship between an old man and his younger acquaintances often is. Furthermore, while the younger men clearly have an enormous amount of respect towards Uchida, they, like his wife, seem to think of him as something of an infant. Or that at least is the feeling that I get from their glances and their reactions to many of Uchida’s comments and behaviour.

    Coming to think of it now, I actually find it interesting how little the film deals with Uchida’s former role as a teacher. Apart from the first scene, and later remarks how “golden” a teacher or person he is, the film seems to pretty much brush aside this side of Uchida, and be more concerned about his status as a writer and an old man.

    All in all, apart from the convenient biographical detail that it is Kurosawa’s last film and that he was old when making it, I personally fail to see a reason to give the film an autobiographical reading. But as I said before, this is just my own conclusion, and I don’t expect it to be considered the final say on the matter. 🙂

    As for that interview that you mention, it would be great to have a reference. To be honest, I can’t remember an interview where Kurosawa would have mentioned his regret for not having students, but then again my memory is what it is.

    The closest thing that I can think of is a comment that he makes somewhere — or so I think, for I failed to locate the reference myself — where he states something along the lines of regretting that from all the assistant directors that he has had, no one has really graduated into becoming an actual director. I think that this is in the autobiography, but I am unable to find the passage. Maybe someone has a better memory for these things?

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    cocoskyavitch

    Gosh, Vili,

    I don’t have the thing at my fingertips. The regret Kurosawa speaks of is, I believe, on the “Its Wonderful to Create” documentary…but, I also think there are a couple of these, so I can’t at this moment even point to the actual Criterion disc where it lives.

    And, today is the application deadline for Winter Break Programs…we’ll be processing applications, reading essays, looking at GPAs until the holiday. Mine will be in Mexico City for Christmas-New Year. Honestly, though, if it comes to me, I will post the reference. Yellow sweater. Of that I feel fairly sure.

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    Vili Maunula

    Coco: I don’t have the thing at my fingertips. The regret Kurosawa speaks of is, I believe, on the “Its Wonderful to Create” documentary…but, I also think there are a couple of these, so I can’t at this moment even point to the actual Criterion disc where it lives.

    Hm. Might it be in the “A Message from Akira Kurosawa” documentary, which is included on Criterion’s Ikiru set? Something somewhere at the back of my head is telling me that it might be there. Maybe I should watch it again, because if I don’t it will start nagging me. 🙂

    Coco: And, today is the application deadline for Winter Break Programs…we’ll be processing applications, reading essays, looking at GPAs until the holiday. Mine will be in Mexico City for Christmas-New Year.

    So, it seems that I’m the only regular here who is not going anywhere for the holidays. In fact, I will most probably be working. Not that I’m complaining, actually.

    Have fun in Mexico City, though! I’d love to go there one day.

    Coco: Honestly, though, if it comes to me, I will post the reference. Yellow sweater. Of that I feel fairly sure.

    🙂 I do the same — people ask me about a quote and all I can tell them is the colour of the book, which part of the book it was (“it was about ‘this’ thick and there was about ‘this’ much left of it), and what part of the page the text was. But the title, author and other such “insignificant” little details I have much more difficulty remembering! 😆

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    cocoskyavitch

    Mmm. I dunno, Vili, I sense that you may have a selective, but I doubt poor memory! 🙂

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    Vili Maunula

    I can report that the said lamentation about a lack of students wasn’t in the A Message from Akira Kurosawa documentary, having watched it again yesterday.

    The documentary did, however, mention an interesting thing about lighting, which I had forgotten about.

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