#27 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
It’s an interesting irony that the last film of Kurosawa’s long career is titled Not Yet. He was a man who didn’t see an end for his career just yet, but an accident left him lame in his final months, preventing him from working on another film set. And yet, Madadayo is both the work of an old man looking clearly back at his own life as well as the limits of his old age. It is both vigorous and calm. It’s not entirely successful, a lesser work of a filmmaker who had made some of the great entertainments of the medium, but there’s still something nice about it at the same time.
Hyakken Uchida (Tatsuo Matsumura) is a professor of German at a Japanese university who has decided to retire from teaching after the financial success of some of his writing during World War II. The opening scene is him saying goodbye to his current class using a combination of wit (that probably works better in the original Japanese with knowledge of German, but the English subtitles do their work to translate it as well as possible) and warmth that will become long familiar to the audience by the time the film is over. It’s meant to do one thing: to make the audience understand how generations of students could grow to love him, and it works. Uchida is a charming, affable, and unassuming man who obviously endears respect and admiration from his students, and the movie entirely depends on it. Over-depends, to be honest, but it’s still important.
Upon his sixtieth birthday he invites some of his favorite former students (all adults) to his new house to celebrate. This becomes a yearly event organized by the students, an effort to help cheer up their beloved former teacher after the house is burned to the ground in the firebombing of Japan and he’s left to live with his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) in a shack on the property of a baron whose house was also burned. The students gather together their resources and go so far as to build him a new house, complete with a donut shaped pond so that Uchida’s fish will be able to swim in any direction they want.
And this is where the movie feels weird and, ultimately, unsuccessful to me. The dedication of these students to their former professor is pushed to the limits in two extended sequences. The first is the idea to build him a new house. This is actually the more believable of the two events because it doesn’t seem totally unreasonable that a couple dozen successful adults could pool their resources to give a beloved former teacher a small house. It stretches things a bit in my mind, but I can accept it. When combined with the second extended sequence, I’m at a bit of a loss.
Uchida and his wife have adopted a stray alley cat that they call Alley. We see the cat briefly in one scene where the students come to visit in the new home, and then the cat gets lost. Uchida is completely emotionally wrecked by the missing cat. I mean…it’s all he talks about. He cries all the time. It’s weird. It’s so weird that I was expecting a point to it in regards to his character, perhaps something about him not having children, but no, that’s all there is to it. It’s a cat he had for a bit that wandered off. That’s strange enough, but then the students get really invested in finding that cat. I mean…it seems like they have no other lives than to search for that cat. And it goes on for a while. I mean, I think about thirty minutes of this movie, in its latter half, is dedicated to this cat. I don’t think it works.
The cat episode and the house episode end up feeling repetitive as well. They’re both designed to show us how much love and kindness Uchida elicits from those around him, not just his students. There’s the owner of the plot next to his house who refuses to sell the land when his prospective buyer decides to build a three-story house on it, effectively cutting off Uchida from any light. There’s also the group of locals who come to Uchida’s house at the false news that Alley has been found, all offering him presents and congratulations for the finding of his cat. Since we’d never seen either of these people before their respective scenes when they are kind to Uchida, it’s kind of weird. In addition, the level of dedication the students have towards Uchida ends up feeling like something they should question when they’re spending all of their spare time as they survey a bombed out area for a particular stray cat. Cut out the cat episode, and I think the film will improve a good bit, to be honest.
The finale is his 77th birthday, the 17th Not Yet Celebration, and it’s warm and kind. We had earlier seen the 61st birthday, and it was the party of much younger men, including a singing line and some back and forth chanting between the students and Uchida that Kurosawa painted and made one of the original posters. They’re markedly different celebrations, the latter reflecting back on a life while the first was a celebration of that much more life to live.
Without the cat episode, I feel like Madadayo would be a slightly directionless but nice end to Kurosawa’s career. With it, the film feels too aimless for its own good to the point where it highlights its flaws too brightly. Maybe it’s a cultural thing and this sort of dedication and deep emotion on somewhat trivial things is more common in Japan, but it’s definitely not all that common in Kurosawa’s work. Still, even without the Kurosawa connection, I’d be mixed on the film.