Just as the camera had panned down in the opening moments of Sanshiro Sugata [Akira Kurosawa’s first film], so it pans back up at the conclusion of Madadayo as a small boy raises his head to a swirling sky of pinks and yellows. Under this surrealist sunset, it’s as if the camera is too captivated by the beauty and mystery of life to consider leaving it.
Kurosawa had not intended the film to be his last. Despite his declining health, he continued to work on new ideas. Yet Madadayo nevertheless presents the perfect closing statement on a life and career; a poignant meditation on mortality as the narrow road nears its inevitable end.
Those swirling skies are a hallmark of a new phase in Kurosawa’s filmmaking, which had begun with the release of his first colour film, Dodes’ka-den, in 1970. After the success of Sanshiro Sugata, Kurosawa produced a series of world-renowned masterpieces, but his career began to flounder in the mid-1960s, in part because his increasingly strained relationship with his regular star Toshiro Mifune, which finally reached breaking point after the release of Red Beard in 1965. Kurosawa’s contract with Toho, where he’d spent the majority of his career, came to an end the following year, while the Japanese studio system had entered a terminal decline in the face of competition from television.
After a project in the US failed to take off, Kurosawa was invited to work on the Japanese side of the US-Japan co-production Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) only to be humiliatingly fired after coming into conflict with the American producers. Dodes’ka-den was intended as a kind of comeback, announcing a new beginning in Kurosawa’s career with its bold use of colour and absurdist storytelling. But the film failed at the box office and its lack of success is said to have contributed to Kurosawa’s attempt to take his own life a year later.
Throughout the 1970s and 80s, Kurosawa sought funding abroad, but Madadayo in many ways brings things full circle. Aimed more squarely at a domestic audience, the film was financed largely in Japan and distributed by Kurosawa’s former home studio Toho. Like Sanshiro Sugata it focuses on mentor-pupil relationships – but this time Kurosawa projected himself on to the role of the ageing professor, lovingly cared for by his former students, who insist that he has taught them ‘something more than German’ in the course of their studies.
Inspired by the life and writings of Hyakken Uchida, Madadayo is in some ways a final departure in its broadly comic overtones, which heavily rely on complicated linguistic puns almost impossible to effectively convey within the confines of a subtitle. The untranslated title means ‘not yet’ and seems to echo Kurosawa’s own unwillingness to leave filmmaking behind, much as Uchida greets his impending mortality with good humour and resignation. A group of former students holds an annual celebration of Uchida’s life they term the ‘Not Yet Fest’, in which they rather insensitively enact his funeral as performance art. Or else they hold a giant silver plate behind his head, which is intended to symbolise the moon but also – to Uchida’s amusement – makes him look like the Buddha achieving enlightenment.
As with many of Kurosawa’s heroes, Uchida’s chief asset, and the reason he is so loved, isn’t his wittiness and eccentricity but his childlike heart, which has a kind of purity often at odds with the world around him. A return to the more optimistic humanism of his earlier career, Madadayo’s relatively straightforward visual style, save for that dreamy final sunset sequence, lends it an elegiac quality, especially in the brief sequence of the passing seasons in which Uchida’s wife (Kyoko Kagawa) gently sweeps the autumn leaves from their tiny shack.
A bittersweet meditation on mortality, legacy, human warmth and the joy of being alive, it’s a fitting swan song for the ageing master – no longer the hot-headed boy but the wise old professor imparting the lessons of his life to those he’ll leave behind.
Hayley Scanlon, bfi.org.uk, 17 February 2023
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Production Companies: Daiei, Dentsu, Kurosawa Productions
Executive Producers: Yo Yamamoto, Yuzo Irie
Producer: Hisao Kurosawa
General Producers: Yasuyoshi Tokuma, Gohei Kogure
Associate Producer: Seikichi Iizumi
Production Manager: Teruyo Nogami
Production Co-ordinator: Izuhiko Suehiro
Directorial Advisor: Ishiro Honda
Assistant Director: Takashi Koizumi
Screenplay: Akira Kurosawa
Based on the Works of: Hyakken Uchida
Directors of Photography: Takao Saito, Masaharu Ueda
Lighting: Takeharu Sano
Editor: Akira Kurosawa
Art Director: Yoshiro Muraki
Costumes: Kazuko Kurosawa
Music: Shinichiro Ikebe, Shinichiro Ikebe
Sound: Hideo Nishizaki
Tatsuo Matsumura (Professor Hyakken Uchida)
Kyoko Kagawa (Professor’s wife)
Hisashi Igawa (Takayama)
George Tokoro (Amaki)
Masayuki Yui (Kiriyama)
Akira Terao (Sawamura/Narrator)
Takeshi Kusaka (Kobayashi)
Asei Kobayashi (Kameyama)
Hidetaka Yoshioka (student)
Yoshitaka Zushi (neighbour)
Mitsuru Hirata, Nobuto Okamoto, Tetsu Watanabe, Mikihiro Hiaizumi, Norio Matsui, Murohide Sugizaki, Ken Takemura, Hiroyoshi Takenouchi, Motohiro Shimaki, Masaaki Sasaki, Nobuyoshi Masuda, Masayoshi Nagasawa, Shu Nakahan, Yoshimitsu Shindo, Ryujiro Shin, Tatsuya Ito, Naoto Shigemizu, Masuo Amada, Minoru Hirano, Kozo Nomura, Kazuhiko Sasai, Toshi Sasaki, Norimasa Nattori, Fumihiko Tsuburaya, Hiroshi Nagatsubaki, Tatsuya Sakaguchi, Yoshio Nakahira, Sensaburo Makimura, Yasuji Mita, Katsumi Cho, Norinobu Kodama, Yomaru Yokichi, Mikuni Toyama, Sumimaru Yoshimi, Junichi Tsubota, Makoto Dainenji, Shinji Bando, Kojiro Hayasaka, Masahiko Tanimura, Toshihiko Nakano
Stray Dog (Nora Inu)
Wed 1 Feb 20:35; Mon 13 Feb 18:10
Drunken Angel (Yoidore Tenshi)
Thu 2 Feb 18:20; Fri 10 Feb 20:40
The Silent Duel (Shizukanaru Kettô)
Thu 2 Feb 20:40; Sat 11 Feb 18:40
Sanshiro Sugata (Sugata Sanshirô)
Fri 3 Feb 18:20 (+ intro by Ian Haydn Smith, season co-curator); Sun 12 Feb 15:50
Sanshiro Sugata Part Two (Zoku Sugata Sanshirô)
Fri 3 Feb 20:45; Sun 12 Feb 18:20
The Gathering Storm: Kurosawa Study Day
Sat 4 Feb 12:00
Sat 4 Feb 17:50; Wed 15 Feb 20:15
Kurosawa and Shakespeare, Adaptation and Reinvention: An illustrated talk by Adrian Wootton
Sun 5 Feb 15:15
Sun 5 Feb 17:30 (+ intro by Adrian Wooton, CEO of Film London and film curator); Sat 11 Feb 11:50; Sat 25 Feb 17:20
I Live in Fear (Ikimono no Kiroku)
Mon 6 Feb 18:10; Mon 13 Feb 20:40
Wed 8 Feb 20:30; Sun 26 Feb 15:30
Red Beard (Akahige)
Sat 11 Feb 15:20 (+ intro by Ian Haydn Smith, season co-curator); Sun 26 Feb 17:25
Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jô)
Sun 12 Feb 13:00; Fri 17 Feb 20:40; Tue 21 Feb 18:10
Thu 16 Feb 18:10 (+ intro by Ian Haydn Smith, season co-curator); Mon 27 Feb 20:10 (+ intro by Doug Weir, BFI Technical Delivery Manager)
Sat 18 Feb 20:45; Thu 23 Feb 20:15 (+ intro by Asif Kapadia, season co-curator)
Rhapsody in August (Hachigatsu no Kyoshikoku)
Sun 19 Feb 18:30; Sat 25 Feb 12:40
Mon 20 Feb 20:20; Tue 28 Feb 18:00
Philosophical Screens: Throne of Blood
Tue 21 Feb 20:10
Wed 22 Feb 20:50; Sat 25 Feb 20:45
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Programme notes and credits compiled by the BFI Documentation Unit
Notes may be edited or abridged
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