Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Akira Kurosawa and Ishiro Honda
Based on essays written by Hyakken Uchida
Music by Shinichiro Ikebe
Cinematography by Takao Saito and Shoji Ueda
Edited by Akira Kurosawa and Ishiro Honda
Tatsuo Matsumura as Professor Hyakken Uchida
Kyoko Kagawa as Professor's Wife
Hyakken Uchida is a professor at a military academy in Japan, sometime in 1943. He retires from teaching to devote himself to writing and publishing. He moves into a large, comfortable house which is destroyed in an Allied firebombing campaign. Uchida and his wife survive, and move into the former servants' quarters outside another mansion destroyed in the bombings. Uchida and his wife are helped into their new home by the professor's fanatically loyal former students, young, middle-aged, and old. Uchida seems to inspire loyalty in those who pass through his classroom. He is, in a sense, a second, unheralded emperor of Japan, one who inspires loyalty via his decency, whimsical humor, and willingness to let others help him. He exhorts others to work hard for the things they care about deeply, and is kind to animals. He doesn't order anyone to fly planes into battleships. He doesn't dream of subjugating Asia for nationalistic glory. He is a sanctuary of kindness and good humor in a country that has gone straight to hell.
What is it exactly about Uchida that inspires such loyalty? Lots of people are kind to animals, and nice to their fellow human beings. Is it the quality of his writings? It's never explained what kind of things Uchida writes. None of Uchida's followers brings it up, and it wouldn't be unusual if they didn't actually read Uchida's writings. A lot of times the close friends of writers just don't read their work. Why? Too awkward. And would you want to reject a friend just because you didn't like their writing? That would seem kind of petty.
I think the secret to Uchida's appeal is his whimsical humor, his childlike nature, and his willingness to put himself at the mercy of his friends. There are times in the movie when Uchida comes off as more of a stand-up comedian, or a particularly kooky after dinner speaker than a heavy duty intellectual. The desolation of postwar Japan never seems to touch his spirit. He always has some off-kilter insight to offer apropos of absolutely nothing. People in grim circumstances need someone like this, either to venerate as a treasured friend, or to pummel into a gory pulp. Uchida is lucky to be surrounded by kindhearted people. I must confess, there were times when Uchida's quirkiness wore on my patience. I think that this is perhaps by design. It really doesn't matter if Uchida's humor is inane or profound. What matters is the devotion of those who surround Uchida. That's where the heart of this movie lies.
Uchida's followers decide that once every year they will have a "Not Yet Party," celebrating Uchida's continued existence. The word madadayo is a kind of customary cry meaning "Not yet!" that has its origins in a children's game of hide and go seek. The first Not Yet Party is a deeply goofy, drunken affair, that becomes a kind of impromptu musical number. It's a boys' club kind of thing, although in later years Uchida's wife, and the wives and daughters of Uchida's followers are also invited. These later parties are also a lot less raucous, reflecting Uchida and his inner circle's advancing age, and the increasing postwar prosperity and stability of the country as a whole. As the overall situation becomes less grim and desperate, the revelers feel less of a need to give themselves over to total abandon. The Not Yet Parties become a kind of form of humanistic ritual hero worship, with Uchida dispensing advice, in one instance, to a band of seven youngsters. I couldn't help but think, "Are these Kurosawa's Seven Samurai reborn?"
Madadayo is not primarily about World War II, or Imperial Japan's disastrous efforts to rule Asia, but the war is there, and then it is over, and those who survived the bombings must get on with their lives. Uchida and his wife and friends and supporters could have all been incinerated by the bombs. They are spared by blind chance, and they decide to make the best of their remaining years on the planet, forming a community built on kindness and celebration that functions as a near-absurd floating utopia in the postwar desolation. If at times Uchida and his followers seem to be drinking too much, singing too loud, and partying into the AM, well, all these antics are a kind of spell of protection to block out the grim ruins of war that threaten to swallow up all life and joy. People are no doubt starving to death all over the country, there are probably lots of children dying of malnutrition, disease, radiation poisoning, and thirst. In a certain sense, Uchida and his followers' revels are deeply perverse. But what else should they do? Roll over and die? Commit ritual suicide? These are people who were never eaten up with hard-line nationalistic fervor to begin with; rather, they are people who are grateful to be alive. They need to celebrate a decent man like Uchida perhaps more than the old professor needs such veneration himself. And so they create something like a nation, or an anti-nation maybe, built out of mutual love and respect. This nation (or anti-nation) is not meant to endure for a thousand years. It raises no armies, collects no taxes, doesn't coerce its members into swearing loyalty unto seven lifetimes, none of that. It will have its time, the remaining lifespan of Uchida, and then it will die, gracefully, and maybe those that survive will remember it, or maybe they won't. Maybe some of those who live on will take its example to heart, and try to recreate some version of it in the future. Or not.
This was Akira Kurosawa's last movie. I get the feeling that he wanted to go out on a high note with this one, offer his audience hope and joy, but there's despair simmering beneath all the fun. Kurosawa made movies which command respect in large part because they were unflinching in how they confronted corruption, evil, war, mass destruction, and the sometimes crazed and desperate human will to survive. In Seven Samurai, the title characters wage a brutal war for a bowl of rice a day, and are left out in the cold when all is said and done. The Bad Sleep Well depicted a world where scheming business criminals wantonly murder whistleblowers and flaunt the law. High and Low was a kidnap thriller where the cops turn out to be just as ruthless as the sad, delusional kidnapper, maybe more so. The cops are perfectly sane, and yet choose to do something deeply cruel (and illegal) in the name of justice. Yojimbo gleefully depicts the gang war annihilation of an entire town filled with corrupt and stupid people instigated by a clever ronin more or less because he had nothing better to do. Ran, a samurai version of King Lear, is an exercise in stark, ritualistic cruelty, depicting in a highly stylized manner the destruction of Hidetora, a stubborn and foolish ruler, at the hands of his own family members, and by the hands of the enemies he had accumulated over a lifetime of scheming conquest. In Ran, there are scenes of mass carnage staged as painterly landscapes. The rivers of blood are just splashes of paint. The chorus of dying screams of men, women, and children falling to the blade and the rifle brigade just another movement in the symphony. Kagemusha is more sadism: a fading warlord is replaced by a guy who happens to look just like him. This new guy is destroyed by the inches, until he's just one among thousands of artfully arranged bodies in a gloriously deranged battlefield portrait. Throne of Blood reincarnated Macbeth as a kill crazy samurai who meets an end worthy of Tony Montana, after devoting himself to a life of permanent war in pursuit of absolute power.
But hope, decency, mercy, and compassion were also woven into Kurosawa's films. Ikiru showed how an ineffectual bureaucrat dying of cancer musters himself to achieve one worthwhile thing in a lifetime of waste. Dersu Uzala depicts a friendship between two men that endures some of the harshest weather that nature can throw at them. Stray Dog depicts a policeman who battles evil and murderous rage with his personal devotion to duty. Red Beard explores how an indifferent, pampered young doctor learns to care for the sickly poor. One Wonderful Sunday was a demonstration in how fantasy and young love can blot out the desolation of a former war zone riddled with crime, hunger, disease, and poverty.
I think that Madadayo follows the more hopeful currents throughout Kurosawa's work. It's interesting how it echoes the ideas of fantasy, love, and play that were expressed in the 1947 film One Wonderful Sunday, which was also a film with a grim backdrop of postwar devastation. Ran and Kagemusha were films that played almost like fantasias of destruction and sadism with wild color palettes, gorgeous costumes, elaborate set designs, and a kind of austere theatricality about the acting. After those movies he made Dreams which was pure fantasy structured as a series of bizarre episodes offering surreal meditations on nuclear war, old myths and folk tales, and the human will to survive desperate situations. And then he did Rhapsody in August , which was a drama exploring themes of reconciliation and forgiveness set in the real world, and then he did Madadayo which is set in the real world, yet reflects a kind of fantasy about how an old man might want to exit his long life. Or maybe the movie reflects the fantasies of those who venerated Uchida, and their desire for a certain kind of leader--that second emperor I mentioned earlier.
A hero demands followers. Or is it the followers who demand a hero?
Madadayo isn't a bad way to end a career. But I wonder what Kurosawa would've done after this had he lived a little longer. Madadayo suggests that Uchida and his followers believe they can deny death simply by declaring "Not yet!" but that's a fantasy. I guess what I'm trying to say is that I wish that fantasy were true, and that Kurosawa just had to say "Not yet!" and he could've gone on making movie after movie . . . whatever. Just some flaky musings of a guy who is never satisfied. The fan from hell. It's better that I have no control over life and death.