Was Akira Kurosawa’s final film a tribute to his career, or someone else’s?

Was Akira Kurosawa’s final film a tribute to his career, or someone else’s?

Every day, Watch This offers staff recommendations inspired by a new movie coming out that week. This week: This Is 40 and Amour have us thinking about getting older.

Madadayo (1993) 
There’s been a good bit of debate over the years about whether Akira Kurosawa’s final film, Madadayo, was attempting to re-instill a veneration for the elderly in an increasingly disrespectful generation, or reflect how Kurosawa saw his master-to-student relationship with a new wave of filmmakers, or bemoan the relationship he thought he should have with them, but didn’t. For that matter, it’s entirely possible Kurosawa didn’t intend the film as a reflection on his own life so much as a respectful look at author Hyakken Uchida, whose life and essays inspired the film. (The protagonist, played by Tatsuo Matsumura, is named for Uchida.) Regardless of authorial intent, though, it’s easy to see the film as a reflection of Kurosawa’s own life. He was 83 when he made it, and losing his sight, but by making the film under these circumstances, he was paralleling Madadayo’s triumphant defiance against death. 

Madadayo centers on a Japanese language professor who retires at age 60, during World War II. The end of his academic life consternates his admiring former students, who gather every year to celebrate his life with a raucous party that develops its own ritual, based on the call-and-response of a Japanese hide-and-seek game: The students ask, “Maadakai?” (“Are you ready?”) and the professor responds “Madadayo!” (“Not yet!”) and quaffs a beer. At one point, Matsumura describes this game from his childhood, and the film ends with him dreaming of it: The call-and-response is akin to Marco Polo, with the searching group seeking the hiding child by following his voice when he answers. But as the professor ages, becomes progressively more frail and tired and endures various domestic problems—his house is destroyed, he acquires and loses a cat—and his students stand by him and scramble to help him, their version of the question takes on a more dramatic meaning: “Are you done with this life? Are you ready to move on?” “Not yet!” The film is small, intimate, and sentimental, especially by Kurosawa’s usually more dramatic standards, though it has some parallels with his 1952 classic Ikiru. But regardless of whether it’s more about the director’s cheerful intention to cling to his art no matter what issues beset him, or about Uchida’s work, it’s a sweet, melancholy story that suggests old age isn’t so bad, for those who spent their youth well enough to inspire a generation.

Availability: Available on Hulu Plus, and as part of Criterion’s AK 100 DVD box set.