[Written for The Stranger]
We (and by we I mean all of us, not just those people) succumb so easily to the extremes when contemplating our demise: apocalypse or enfeebled withering. A bang or a whimper were the only options Eliot gave for the world’s end; burn out or fade away, as rock and roll fans rewrote the line. In truth, however, most of us do not die in either flames or impenetrable shadow. We stumble along, perhaps weaker, and needing a cane for support, but also hopefully wiser and more patient, and at one point in the midst of our going on comes neither of the drastic poles, but merely a cessation. I do not know what Akira Kurosawa’s final days or hours were like, I do not know how peaceably he met his fate. But I am certain he reached it with a greater serenity than most of us, for in his final film he’d given himself a marvelous reminder of the nobility of carrying on.
Madadayo, completed in 1993 but inexplicably unreleased overseas until now, portrays a beloved professor (Tatsuo Matsumura) who in his retirement years is guarded over and cared for by his former pupils. When he moves, they lug his furniture around; when the bombings of WWII destroy most of his possessions, they replace them. He is a teacher still to these worshipful adults. He has the born educator’s knack of making points by following a seemingly tangential thread, and even when his former pupils are boisterously swilling down wine or beer, they have the respect to listen. (There is quite possibly more drinking — always joyous, happy drinking — in this movie than any other ever made.) Their supreme salute is the annual birthday party they throw in his honor: plenty of sake and laughter, with white-suited waiters drifting about bearing trays of food amid the revelries. Every year the party culminates in their asking him en masse, “Are you ready?” That is, to go, to die. And every year the teacher smiles, gulps down a large glass of beer, and replies in song, “Madadayo” — not yet.
Madadayo is so tender about the everyday pleasures it celebrates that it seems, despite its more than two hours running time, an exquisite, delicate miniature. The setting is WWII and the early years of occupation, but the film never dwells on chaos. When the professor gets a new house after the war, his garden seems at first a veritable oasis, far removed from the burned-out city; not until later is the camera angle reversed, and we see that just on the other side of the fence lies the shattered remains of a building. The mystical power of nature so familiar from previous Kurosawa films is here reduced to two elegant moments: in the first, a year’s worth of enduring the elements in a battered shack, told in a series of brief shots, spring’s hopeful glow quickly following winter’s icy-blue gloom; in the second, an anguished portrait of an alley cat seeking shelter from the rain. For all the misery of the war, the saga of that cat—the professor’s beloved tabby, gone missing—is as much agony as the film allows.
That Kurosawa believes in the benefits of education is clear. (Even rote memorization gets a lovely tribute at the birthday celebration, where one gentleman, admitting he’s bad at speeches, recites all the towns along a particular train line in order. When he finally finishes, the hall is empty save for the professor and one other, who burst into applause.) This is not an ode to teachers, though; Madadayo would have been as beautiful a film if it had centered on a hairdresser or taxi driver, for what Kurosawa is most in awe of is the persistence of the man, not his profession. The first shot in the film is of a door, through which the professor emerges to announce his retirement to his class. Much, much later in the film there is another shot of a door, behind which the now white-haired and stooped sensei must be gingerly escorted when he collapses. But the film doesn’t end there; afterward, there is still more sake to drink, and cigarettes to be smoked, and, as the professor necessarily rests, a charming dream that ends in a spangled wash of colors. There is neither a bang nor a whimper, just the insistence that the old man is not ready to go. Not yet.