Of all of Akira Kurosawa’s works, Madadayo, may be one of the master’s most subtle and elegant. The film, based on the autobiographical essays of writer Hyakken Uchida who is the film’s central character, takes its name from a Japanese form of hide-and-seek in which the person who is “it” calls out to see if everyone is ready, and the other players respond madadayo (Not yet)!”
Structured to emulate Uchida’s writings, the film follows the significant moments in the twilight years of the beloved professor and is punctuated by a recurring birthday celebration held for the aging teacher by his loyal former students. These gatherings culminate with Uchida drinking a large beer and exclaiming, “Madadayo!” — not yet to die, but more specifically, not yet to giving up on life.
Although he would pen two more screenplays prior to his death, Madadayo turned out to be the last time Kurosawa sat in the director’s chair. The film received generally poor reviews and limited exposure in the United States, but upon Kurosawa’s death five years after its release, critics and fans have re-examined it within the context of the artist’s swan song. Despite characteristic differences in personality between the filmmaker and the soft-spoken protagonist, the two have merged in many ways and the film’s elegant meditation on mortality has been interpreted as Kurosawa’s final thoughts on the subject.
From this lens; the artist’s confrontation with his own mortality, the film stands as a poignant celebration of life — traveling in a well-tread subgenre, some may find its joie de vivre, clichéd, it nonetheless leaves its mark on the viewer. Unlike the defiant middle finger to the reaper the typifies Johnny Cash’s late album, American IV, or the enraged and terrified admonitions of the poets who encouraged us to gather rosebuds and rage against dying light, Madadayo merges the desire to live with a calm acceptance of death.
The film ends following Uchida’s final birthday celebration. Surrounded by his students and their families — a beautiful reminder of the power of one person to affect the lives of many and a longing look back at the relationship between teacher and pupil that Kurosawa felt had not survived Japan’s postwar transitions — the elderly professor is forced to leave early due to ill health. While lying on his bed, Uchida dreams of being a boy playing hide-and-go-seek. In a powerfully simple metaphor for death the other players come looking for him asking, “Are you ready,” to which the boy replies, “Not yet!” This refrain, whispered by the old man in his bed and called out without fear by the boy in the dream, merges into one voice desiring to live.
Yet this desire is not the fearful lament of one forced to confront the unknown, nor is it the raging defiance of the mortal at the unfairness of our inevitable end, it is instead the accepting lines of a person who knows that, like the games of our youth, all things must come to an end. The film concludes on a hopeful as the boy looks out at a colorful and beautiful sky while Vivaldi’s “Spirit’s of Harmony”, plays in the background — a powerful end to the film, and fitting final work for an amazing artist. — Shawn O’Rourke
This article originally published on 21 October 2010.