“Though it may be against the principles of this meeting, ask me again next year and the year after; please ask me Maadha Kai (are you ready). I promise that I will some day respond to you by saying Mouiijo (I’m ready).”
The final film of Akira Kurosawa’s fifty-seven year career is a tribute to and study of Hyakken Uchida, professor and author. Kurosawa was widely known to have a high regard for the man (and he wasn’t the only one; Seijun Suzuki adapted Zigeunerweisen in 1970) and one can see many similarities between the two. The later career of Kurosawa focused heavily on histrionics and reminisced of things long past, increasingly absorbing the fanciful idealisms and truth-seeking of Uchida. This film is the adaptation of several of Uchida’s essays.
When the film begins, Uchida (played perfectly by Tatsuo Matsumura) has been teaching German literature for many years. It is the day of his retirement; it is 1943. He is revered by his former students. When he invites them to his sixtieth birthday celebration, they admire his generosity and modesty as much as they always have. Soon after, Uchida’s spacious house is burned down by an air raid. He and his wife are forced to live in a one-room hut but are visited by his former students who deliver him food and beer. He sits outside in the rain with an umbrella as they rearrange the furniture to fit everything in the hut. There are many moments like this (in typical Kurosawa fashion); a fascination in the things that are frequently routine. Through the many ups and downs of Uchida’s life, he is always accommodating and always poised with a philosophical tale of whimsy. He asks for nothing but does not shy away from revealing his dreams, his fears, his deficiencies, as long as he can transform them into fables that someone else might learn from them.
Following his retirement he is known for being reclusive, busy working on the novels and writings which provide him a living. His former students express their desire to build him a proper home and, to celebrate, they throw a Maadha Kai banquet. With giant beer glass in hand, Uchida is encouraged to speak at length and so these banquets become tradition. He is a man who is depicted in many ways like a child – more akin an academic Prince Myshkin than a notoriously bumpkin Lennie Small; thunderstorms and darkness frighten him but he is always very specific reasons as to why. He is regarded as a child and a genius throughout the film for the similarities between the two are great: innocence and honesty are of the utmost concern.
Madadayo is an interesting film in Kurosawa’s repertoire because his classic style is fluidly married to modern filmmaking. The editing is crisp and effective but this does not detract from Kurosawa’s signature themes and well-framed shots. A vivid palette and fluid cinematography compliment the still scenery and grand performances. It is the dedication to a man who was admired by his pupils; the dream of every man advanced in age. It is a swan song that is optimistic yet afraid of death, realistic in its conviction yet whimsical in its sincerity. Like the man (both men), it is a mirror and an enigma, instructive and autobiographical.