Maadadayo, Hojoki, and the veneration of Professor Uchida
8 May 2015
12 May 2015
I can’t really add much to this except to say that I think this is one of the most enlightening and interesting things I’ve read about Madadayo, and I think it makes perfect sense. Thanks.
17 May 2015
Thanks indeed, Shintsurezuregusa! I have never really realised how strong the connections between Madadayo and Hōjōki are. I think I’ll reread the essay before I watch Kurosawa’s film, which I sadly haven’t had the opportunity to do yet this month.
For those who are unfamiliar with the text, it is a short and very good read. There is a translation here and another one here. The latter seems to be based on the widely published translation by A.L. Sadler, which I have in book form.
Shintsurezuregusa: despite being an old man he is also childlike
In addition to his sage-like attributes which you mentioned, I suppose it is also meaningful that the film begins with Uchida’s 60th birthday, the kanreki, which marks the end of one cycle in life and the beginning of another, hence something of a rebirth and a second childhood.
The 77th birthday, kiju, which ends the film is similarly significant, being the “happy year”. There is more about Japanese longevity milestones in here.
An understanding of the Hojoki and Kamo-no-Chomei’s life, I think, enables us to better understand what Kurosawa was intending to say with Maadadayo. This is particularly useful for non-Japanese audiences as the film taps into a number of themes that Japanese will perhaps take for granted having been exposed to them both culturally and during their schooling.
There are number of references to and parallels with Kamo-no-Chomei’s Hojoki – An Account of a Ten-foot Hut – in Maadadayo. This is made most explicit when Professor Uchida first moves into the small hut with his wife after his house is destroyed in a fire-bombing. The professor overtly references the book – he even holds it up to the camera so that we the audience can see it – and then, for any of his Japanese viewers who have forgotten what Hojoki was about since having to read it in high school, the Uchida then explains the Hojoki and why he feels a connection with the book and its author.
The main theme of Maadadayo – that although death may be near, life goes on – also mirrors the themes of the Hojoki.
“The current of the flowing river does not cease, and yet the water is not the same water as before. The foam that floats on stagnant pools, now vanishing, now forming, never stays the same for long.”
The theme of impermanence is continually reiterated throughout the film; generations of students come and go; houses are moved into, destroyed, threatened, rebuilt and moved into again; the seasons pass; a cat is found and then lost; another cat is found, reaches old age, and dies; the willow tree in the garden continues to grow; Professor Uchida’s birthday party is first celebrated by his students but later by his students and their offspring. Nothing stays the same, everything passes. Attachment only causes suffering. (One scholar has stated that in Maadadayo Kurosawa depicts nature in a completely non-psychological/non-metaphorical way but I disagree with this; the “time-lapse” of the passing of the seasons or a comment on the willow tree growing is intentionally used to show how “the current of the flowing river does not cease…” and tap into the aesthetics of impermanence rather than documenting them as fact.)
These are obvious parallels with the Hojoki. What an understanding of Hojoki – or more precisely the life and times of Kamo-no-Chomei – might also help to explain, however, is why Kurosawa decided to characterize his protagonist the way that he does: More specifically, why do the professor’s students admire him so; the students’ devotion to the professor seems, on first analysis, to be excessive – to the extent that they fret about his happiness even while they at work. It is not immediately obvious why this is the case because – apart from the fact that Uchida is regarded as an important literary figure in Japan – Uchida has not been shown to be an endearing, admirable character. Kurosawa has not made the professor a particularly charming, or even kind character – he often makes jokes at his students expense; he keeps telling them that he doesn’t want them to visit. Moreover, some of his behaviour makes him appear infantile; his wife virtually waits on him like a mother and his students run errands for him at their own expense – they feel obliged to protect him because, “he is more sensitive than us.”. He is not like Dr. Niide in Red Beard , nor like Dersu Uzala – superior characters that, we the audience, are automatically in awe of. We are simply expected to admire Uchida because his students do, but we are not told why.
Tetsuo Yamaori’s essay on the Hojoki, “Kamo no Chomei and the Apprehension of Impermanence” might offer some background on this, and particularly why a certain type of elderly person and character type are, traditionally, the source of veneration in Japan.
“Since ancient times, the gods of Japan, when they have manifested themselves in the world, have often taken the form of old men or of children…Gods were thought to be close in nature to the aged. At the same time, they were thought of as similar to children. Old men and young boys were looked upon as human beings with a character closer to that of divine existences. As existences apart from the mundane life and approved by the gods, they had long been regarded as objects of faith.” – p.370.
I believe that Kurosawa was trying to depict Professor Uchida in such a way – an aged man with child-like qualities; the professor is described as being like “pure gold, with no impurities,” by his students. As mentioned before, despite being an old man he is also childlike – he can’t sleep with the light off, he cowers under the futon when there is thunder, he sings children’s nursery rhymes; what might be read as immaturity is intended, by Kurosawa, as innocence. This childlike quality in the figure of an old man is what accounts for his students’ devotion, indeed their veneration.
Yamaori continues, “We should note that old men have traditionally been revered as persons closer to the gods. The okina (old man in Noh plays) is the representative of the elderly sage in Japan, and the person who has lived splendidly as an old man is thought to become a god or Buddha after death.” (Yamori: 371) The professor is also “god-“ or “Buddha-like” in his extreme compassion – regularly described in the film as sentimentality, sensitivity, or the result of the professor’s “highly sophisticated imagination” i.e. empathy. (This might also explain Professor Uchida’s final dream.)
We should also note that like the Hojoki, Maadadayo begins when the Uchida turns 60 years old – the same age Chomei claims he was in the Hojoki. Yamaori describes this as the time when “the dew of life begins to disappear” and there is a move towards “spiritual maturation.” It is in old age, Yamaori writes, “That the basic lineaments of (the old man’s) childhood, or thirties, or fifties become apparent to him.” Interestingly, many believe that Chomei actually became a recluse and wrote the Hojoki when he was in his mid-fifties, not sixty. Yamaori says that this is , once again, because of the authority that is associated with old age – Chomei wished that he was older than he actually was. Similalry, the professor in Maadadayo says that he has finally become an old man upon turning sixty, but later, at his 77th birthday celebration, claimed that he now realized that he was still just a young punk when he was 60.
It is interesting to contrast this with the stories of “oyasute” – or the abandoning elderly people on mountain tops, referenced in The Ballad of Narayama.