The Kurosawa Odyssey
Studio: Daiei Film, Toho
Screenwriter: Akira Kurosawa, based on the works of Hyakken Uchida
Cast: Tatsuo Matsumura, Kyoko Kagawa
Cinematographer: Takao Saito, Shoji Ueda
Music: Shinichiro Ikebe
After samurai, warlords, judo masters, shoe designers, artists and doctors, Akira Kurosawa focuses his last film on a man named Uchida. Upon first blush, he is the most ordinary of heroes. He’s never been to war, never tracked down kidnappers or a stolen gun, never ran into the blast of an atomic bomb, never lived in the Russian woods for decades and I’m pretty sure he never pulled a “Hamlet” on the company that murdered his father. Instead, Uchida is a retired professor. We don’t even know what he teaches. Instead of hiding princesses, getting across borders or getting involved in a press scandal, Uchida’s problems involve housing and missing cats. “Madadayo” purposely calls back what most consider to be the maestro’s greatest work, “Ikiru,” acting as its spiritual brother. It’s about living a life, and the thousands of decisions we make a day that make us human beings.
In other words, it’s the perfect way to say goodbye.
Then again, Uchida famously refuses to do just that. His students even create an annual party for Uchida where he shouts “Madadayo” over and over, which is literally translated as “Not yet!” There’s still so much more to say! So much more to do! I can only imagine that Kurosawa knew that this was his final film, and you can feel him coming to terms with these divergent ideas throughout – I know I have to say goodbye, but I’m not ready yet.
It’s also so fitting that his last film is, essentially, about love. Love between a teacher and his students, a husband and a wife, a master and his pet. Every one of the film’s loosely connected chapters (denoted with long fades) comes back to this idea. In the first scene, Uchida (Tatsuo Matsumura) announces that he is retiring, and his students tell him that he’ll always be their professor. It’s not quite “O Captain, my captain!” but it’s pretty close. Kurosawa, who also wrote the screenplay, purposely keeps the specifics of Uchida’s life general. As I wrote, we don’t even know what he teaches, and it’s stated that his writings will bring in enough money to keep himself and his wife afloat, but we don’t know what these writings are. Advice he gives his students is general and not specific to one subject. While in a lesser movie, these sort of generalities are infuriating, somehow Kurosawa makes it work here (I feel like I keep writing time and again in these final few essays that everything Kurosawa does should not work, and yet miraculously does. I suppose I should have always assumed he could pull anything off).
Kurosawa also keeps the supporting cast ciphers as well, instead placing his focus almost entirely on Uchida. This is another hallmark of late-era Kurosawa – he does the same thing with the main characters of “Dersu Uzala” and “Rhapsody in August.” Uchida’s wife, who isn’t even given a name but is played very well by Kyoko Kagawa, is the most well-sketched of the supporting cast, but she’s basically there to be supportive, emotional and to look on lovingly. There are four students who love Uchida dearly, and we are not so much engaged by their individual points of view (since they rarely have differing ones) and personalities (since they are all essentially the same), but by their obvious adoration for this quirky, interesting, stubborn old man.
I have to say, it’s so refreshing to see a movie about inherently good people doing good things to help one another. Is it far-fetched that these men drop everything immediately if their professor needs anything? Is it crazy that they build him a house and then buy the land next to it to make sure that he can see the suns in the morning? Is it nuts that they basically create a country-wide search for Uchida’s missing cat? Some might say so, but I don’t think so. If you are very, very lucky, at some point in your life you will have a teacher who you adore as much as these men love Uchida. When I was attending the American Film Institute Conservatory, I met a professor named Jim Hosney, and he changed the way I look at movies forever. It’s not an exaggeration to say I would do any of these things for him in a heartbeat.
In some ways, you have to wonder if Kurosawa based these four students off of George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola and Steven Spielberg. They never “took one of his classes,” but they openly said that they learned almost everything from Kurosawa, and when the maestro had troubles getting funding for his films, they made the necessary calls to make sure his vision was uncompromised. Or is that a bridge too far?
Perhaps. Perhaps not. Uchida is obviously a version of Kurosawa, and much of the life advice the character gives could have easily come from the maestro (in fact, these bits of advice often are repeating morals and ethics he touched on earlier in his filmography). But while the supporting cast are ciphers, Kurosawa is very careful to craft Uchida into a fully three-dimensional, eccentric human being. When he learns his new home was often robbed in the past, his way of dealing with it is to leave his backdoor unlocked and nailing a sign to it that reads “Burglar’s Entrance.” What robber would actually take the bait? When he and his wife move into what is basically a shack in the bad part of town after the war claims their first home, Uchida notices that everyone urinates on his boundary wall. His solution? To paint a scissors on the wall, implying that if he catches anyone pissing on his wall, he’ll cut their dicks off. Not exactly subtle, but it works.
Uchida’s humanity is underlined when his cat, named Alley, disappears and he has a mental breakdown from worry. As his students rally to find Alley, he tries unsuccessfully to keep it together, unable to escape picturing the cat roaming around in dangerous situations. By this time his character has been set up so perfectly that we fully buy that this is the type of man who would have this reaction to losing a beloved pet, and our hearts break for him.
One of the movie’s missteps is a long, loooong sequence showcasing one of the “Not Yet!” birthday parties for Uchida. It is right after the war, and the dining hall is filled with men who get drunk and praise their professor. This is one of those very unfortunate sequences where Kurosawa has the characters laugh loudly and annoyingly at every word and phrase, and even throws in a prolonged musical number for good measure. Aside from “Ikiru” (oh look, another callback!), I loathe these types of scenes in Kurosawa, and this is no exception.
There is a second one of these parties in the third act, and this one is much more successful. Things have changed. The room is bigger. Women and children are now invited. Without overtly stating it, Kurosawa visually gets across that Uchida is surrounded by all the lives he has touched over his life. Not just his wife and students, but their wives, children and grandchildren… people who will carry on Uchida’s teachings even if they don’t know his name. And here, subtly at first, Uchida begins to fade away. He feels ill, and his cries of “Not Yet!” aren’t fooling anyone. He is taken home and the doctor says he’s going to be fine, but viewers know better – any time a doctor says someone is fine in the third act of a tearjerker drama, he or she will be dead in ten minutes or less.
And then we have the final sequence – Uchida’s dream, where he finally succumbs and stops shouting “Not Yet!” He’s a young boy again, hiding from girls in haystacks when he is silenced by seeing the great, beautiful…something above him. And that’s all there is. This is the only unreal moment in the entire film, and though we’ve seen this type of thing before, it feels fitting that they are the last images Kurosawa ever crafted.
It’s fitting as well, that “Mayadayo” is his final movie. It’s not his best, but it’s still great. I feared that anything after his transcendent “Ran” would feel like a needless epilogue, and though “Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams” and “Rhapsody in August” sometimes felt that way, this did not. He was an artist, yes, arguably the greatest filmmaker who has ever lived, but he was also a teacher. And this felt like a necessary goodbye from him – a final tip of the hat to all his students and an acknowledgement that his works would live on in filmmakers as long as films are made.
Thank you, maestro, for all the lessons.