Sayonara Kurosawa

Last film of the renowned Japanese master now available at video stores

FAREWELL, CAPTAIN : Tatsuo Matsumura plays a retired professor in Akira Kurosawa’s final film, <i>Madadayo</i>, a sweet ode to old age.

FAREWELL, CAPTAIN : Tatsuo Matsumura plays a retired professor in Akira Kurosawa’s final film, Madadayo, a sweet ode to old age.

Starring Tatsuo Matsumura. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Not rated. Available on videotape.
Rated 4.0

Madadayo is the final film of the late Akira Kurosawa, and it is a farewell film in more than one sense of the term. It is also not exactly typical of the great Japanese filmmaker’s work—which, as it turns out, is part of what makes it interesting.

Indeed, viewers who know Kurosawa only as the director of several classic samurai films (The Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Rashomon, etc.) may be surprised or even dismayed to learn that Madadayo is a rather leisurely and sedate film devoted to a series of meetings and celebrations between a retired professor and various groups of his former students. The story begins with the professor’s 60th birthday, in 1943, and ranges over 17 years’ worth of such gatherings, with a turbulent period in modern Japanese history (from World War II to the 1960s) reflected in the background.

The professor (played by the owlish Tatsuo Matsumura) is sentimental, learned, prankish and a little goofy. His adoring students mirror his qualities to varying degrees, and the more successful among them are determined to reward his life’s work with whatever indulgences they can devise. It’s not something you’d expect to see in contemporary America, or anywhere else for that matter, but that may be part of the point—Kurosawa’s indulgence of these characters seems a quietly defiant gesture against everything in the modern world that works against community, tradition and respect for humble wisdom.

This is unabashedly an old man’s film, and its blithe disregard for the flash and zip of current movie styles is part of its gradually emerging, and ultimately undeniable, charm. Much of it is about banquets with drinking and songs and funny speeches. Surviving in wartime and the difficulties in post-war recovery get less of the film’s attention than the search for a lost cat, but the view of the professor’s retirement years proves surprisingly engaging all the same.

In one of their banquet rituals, the former students ask the professor, “Are you ready?” His answer is always “Madadayo"—"No, not yet!” The antics of these characters are too mild for Hollywood entertainment, but Kurosawa makes us see them as the gracious gestures of people who have come to terms with the losing battle against time that we all fight.

Some other recent video releases that did not play in Chico theaters:

Time and Tide. A flashy, funny, violent and occasionally surreal crime film from Hong Kong master Tsui Hark. The storytelling and the camerawork are often nearly as acrobatic and unpredictable as the martial-arts action.

Human Resources. Frank (Jalil Lespert), a university graduate, is hired as a personnel expert in the factory where his father and brother work. Director Laurent Cantet gets a sharp commentary on the modern workplace and contemporary family life in France, with fine work by a non-professional cast.

The Claim. Transposing Thomas Hardy’s The Mayor of Casterbridge to the Sierra Nevada in the Gold Rush era is a brilliant idea. The dramatic results are almost as cold as the landscapes, but this stark tale is worth seeing (preferably in letterboxed version available on DVD).

South of Heaven, West of Hell. Dwight Yoakum’s attempt to write, direct and star in a big-scale western has fine widescreen color cinematography by James Glennon and a large and inviting cast (Vince Vaughn, Bridget Fonda, Billy Bob Thornton, Paul Reubens, Peter Fonda and such old-time stalwarts as Scott Wilson, Matt Clark, and Luke Askew). It’s not a surprise that Yoakum is no Orson Welles, but the results are still astonishingly listless.

61*. Originally shown on HBO, Billy Crystal’s charmingly corny baseball drama thrives on the winning performances of Thomas Jane as Mickey Mantle and Barry Pepper as Roger Maris. Their astonishingly accurate incarnations of the two players’ body language, on the field and off, are a big part of what makes Billy’s nostalgia trip worthwhile for move fans and baseball fans alike.