Madadayo, Akira Kurosawa’s final film, is full of singing and laughter. It opens with a steady shot of a closed door; the door is inside the Tokyo university classroom of Professor Hyakken Uchida (Tatsuo Matsumura—a career-capping performance), an actual person, on the day he announces his retirement to his class of adoring students. Soon after, the camera takes in a closed door inside his home. We learn from a former student’s haunting voiceover the impermanence of this seeming permanence—and the reason for the professor’s decision to retire: Allied bombing burned down his house. Uchida and his wife take up residence in a hut in Gotemba that more overtly suggests the impermance that lies in waiting behind every “permanent” door. Still later, Uchida loses his cat, an adopted companion the withdrawal of whose comfort encapsulates life’s theme of loss. At the last, Kurosawa is again close to John Ford.
Uchida, though, resists as best he can loss as the theme of life. His writing attempts to bring “permanence” to his thoughts and ideas; through the years he remains cheerfully loquacious at his birthday reunions with former students; when he is inevitably asked on these occasions, “Not yet?” he affirmatively answers, “No, not yet!” Madada yo. Uchida may shed a tear at these birthday celebrations (for which—this is very John Ford!—his wife hands him a handkerchief), and there are more copious tears and heartache as time goes on and dwindles; but Uchida’s spirit stays combatant.
One day, he recalls, Uchida and a strange horse locked eyes in the street. Their fleeting, profound communion, with its suggestion of past-life acquaintanceship, is a most mysterious moment that also resonates with loss as the theme of life.
Ishirô Honda, his loyal friend, contributed to Kurosawa’s script.
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