Sunday, January 25, 2009

Kurosawa Akira's Madadayo (1993)

The way this is titled in English is one of those odd bits of Orientalism you get in the importation of Japanese movies. As Wikipedia notes, the correct romanization of the first element of the title isn't "mada" but "mâda" or "maada;" furthermore, it's not all one word. It ought to be "mâda da yo." But why romanize it at all? Why not just call the movie Not Yet! That's what the phrase means, however you romanize it: it's not some inscrutable Oriental formula. Anyway.

The mood of the whole film is like that of the final segment of Dreams: a combination of elegy and idyll. What’s being here idyllized and elegized is purity of sentiment (you could argue the same is true of the final segment of Dreams). This is a world of absolutely no conflict, not even – or especially – internal conflict. At the Maadakai you have forty or so grown men, former students of Uchida’s, gathered in complete unanimity of love and gratitude for him: the bond between sensei and student here is fairy-tale pure and strong. Utterly unbelievable, but it’s not trying to be realistic; in fact there are very subtle touches of surrealism (such as the moment when everybody in the room suddenly tries to pour a drink for him) to let us know we’re not supposed to see it realistically. It’s a portrait of a certain sentiment.

And like a well-painted portrait behind glass and a velvet rope at a museum, this film’s picture of sentiment doesn’t allow you in, really. It demonstrates some fairly endearing qualities in Uchida, but only halfway through the movie does he finally (I think) earn the audience’s love; but we have the students, and the movie, slathering him with this love from the first scene. We watch from a distance, wondering how all of these characters can be so pure and united in their feelings. And this alienation carries over to our view of Uchida himself, whose childlike purity and intensity of emotion are meant to be inspiring but who never seems quite as endearing to the viewer as he does to his students.

The upshot is that this film is a bit cloying. It’s also quite stately in its pacing, meaning you have a lot of time to think about things like why you’re not responding to Uchida the way his students are, and why Kurosawa’s not interested in giving anybody besides Uchida a personality (this from the director of Seven Samurai, a model of subtle revelation of character). A lot of time to contemplate the visuals.

Which are, typically, fabulous. Right up to his death Kurosawa was the master of framing, of depth-of-field manipulation, of shot choice, of absolutely every aspect of putting stuff on the screen. The film is filled with delightful little touches like the way, when Uchida’s talking on the phone to someone who thinks they’ve found his cat, the camera zooms in on his head, then follows it up and down as bows to the person on the other end of the line. Like the shot of his shack in winter, with Uchida and his wife in the doorway looking out, one wrapped in a black comforter and one in a white, one kneeling and one standing, so they’re framed by the doorway in a perfect vertical composition. Like the final dream scene, the kid scampering around through haystacks under a mystical autumn sky (painted by Kurosawa himself).

Certainly not my favorite of his films, but a very appropriate way to go out.

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