If anyone needed proof that the climate for foreign-language films has changed radically in this country, consider the fate of the last films by two of the past century's most celebrated masters: Federico Fellini's magical Voices of the Moon (1990) has yet to receive a proper theatrical run, and Akira Kurosawa's Madadayo (1993) has waited seven years for its theatrical bow. Though the audience for such monumental artists has diminished, the belated release of Madadayo is a special event indeed. This gentle story of a revered professor and his doting acolytes has the feel of a valedictory message from the legendary director of such classics as The Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo and Ran. Even if it lacks the dynamism of those films, Madadayo remains a masterly work, with Kurosawa, then 83, still capable of surprising an audience and creating indelible images.
Kurosawa's screenplay for Madadayo is adapted from the writings of Hyakken Uchida, a university professor and best-selling author, who is first seen here bidding farewell to his students in the year 1943 to pursue a full-time writing career. ('He who runs after two hares will catch neither,' he advises his listeners.) The movie consists of a series of vignettes, all centered on Professor Uchida's special bond with his many graduates. On their first visit to the home of Uchida and his wife, his students are reminded of their professor's mischievous humor by a sign reading 'Guests Unwelcome,' and designated areas marked off as 'Burglar's Entrance,' 'Burglar's Recess Area' and 'Burglar's Exit.' Uchida's house is subsequently destroyed in an air raid, and he is forced to take refuge in a tiny shack with barely enough room for two people. A core group of his former students pool their resources and build him a new house, with a backyard dominated by a circular pond. His pupils also decide to commemorate Uchida's birthday with a large annual gathering, highlighted by his ritual downing of a huge glass of beer in one gulp and his defiant answer to the question 'Are you ready (for the next world)?' 'Madadayo!' ('Not yet!'), he robustly declares.
Uchida's placid existence is disrupted when a stray cat he's adopted suddenly disappears. The professor becomes morose and uncommunicative, and his dutiful students scour the area in search of the lost feline. Kurosawa deliberately prolongs the episode, giving full weight to the kinship a man can feel toward an animal, and exposing the profound sensitivity and vulnerability of this good-natured scholar.
The film closes with Uchida's 77th birthday celebration, a marked contrast to the first gathering 17 years earlier. Unlike the all-male parties of the initial years, now his former students join their wives, children and grandchildren in paying homage to this inspirational icon. The mug of beer has gotten smaller, but Uchida is no less determined to drink it all down and mock the passage of time. The professor collapses, but still manages to shout 'Madadayo!' before being carried from the banquet hall.
Kurosawa is regarded as the most 'Western' of Japanese directors, but Madadayo seems more specifically an expression of its culture than his typical output (which may explain its delay in finding a U.S. distributor). The attitudes of the students toward their mentor is more reverential and open-hearted than you'd likely ever find in the West, and the movie is filled with rituals, symbols and songs that will certainly have more resonance with a Japanese audience. Though certain subtleties may be lost on the Western viewer, the warmth of the relationships depicted onscreen makes an appealing ideal. And always, one can appreciate the hand of a visual master-the way Kurosawa pans from Uchida's forlorn shack to the ruins of an adjoining mansion, or his joyous depiction of an undulating conga line. The film is also a delightful showcase for veteran actor Tatsuo Matsumura (Kurosawa's Dodes'ka-den), who captures all of Uchida's sly wit, intellect, cantankerousness and civility. When Uchida speaks of finding something you treasure and working hard to achieve it, the words might as well be coming from Kurosawa, whose passion for his art created a wondrous legacy.