Madadayo was Akira Kurosawa’s 30th and final film, made in 1992 when the director was 82 and released in the United States only last year. That’s quite a delay for the release of a film by a world-class director, but while one instinctively wants to blame the dumbing down of American audiences (and other usual suspects) for this unseemly tardiness, the fault more likely lies with the film itself. It’s not just that it’s the slow-paced and wintry work of an octogenarian, it’s that it is, at the risk of sounding excessively ethnocentric, exceedingly Japanese.
The film opens in 1943 and centers around a retiring professor of German (Tatsuo Matsumura) and his worshipful group of former students. The first part of the film consists of many scenes that go like this: The professor and his admirers will be gathered somewhere — often the professor’s home — and the great sensei will utter a few banal remarks causing his audience to laugh like hyenas and comment on what a one-of-a-kind wise man the old bird is. After a while it starts to seem like one of those scenes from Goodfellas where the hollow laughter rose out of an underlying tension. But more likely the subtitles are to blame — one gets the feeling that a great deal of wordplay and cultural nuance isn’t coming through.
Though the disconnect between the model of accumulated wisdom that the professor is supposed to be and the rather doddering pedant we see on the screen is never resolved, gradually the man’s humanity is filled in, particularly during a long and moving sequence involving a lost cat. Then there are the film’s two set pieces involving the professor’s 60th and 77th birthday celebrations, both humorously bizarre, if a little overextended.
And finally, just as one is ready to write the film off as an interesting but minor work from a great talent, there’s a final grace note of extraordinary beauty, a dream sequence which explains the origin of the film’s title (which translates as “not yet”). Madadayo is a faltering swan song, but one with enough quiet grace to honor its director.
Showing exclusively at the Detroit Film Theatre (inside the DIA, 5200 Woodward, Detroit), Monday at 7:30 p.m. Call 313-833-3237.
Richard C. Walls writes about the arts for the Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.