Here we have a sentimental Kurosawa picture about an elderly teacher who, courtesy of his wise (and somewhat cracking) observations of life and times, has gained the veneration of his doting students. The problem for me with this picture was that I didn’t find my old chap particularly likeable. He seemed to me more an idling opportunist with a high opinion of himself than an erudite poet-philosopher worthy of adoration.
The experience of watching Maadadayo will probably be far more pleasurable for those who want to see a portrayal of post-war trauma in Japan that tries valiantly to be very different from other films more explicitly political or socio-realist in their approach. In this picture we only gain brief glimpses of the destruction, political intrigue and social upheaval wrought across the nation. It’s perspective is extremely narrow, concentrated instead on the mostly pathetic ditherances of its professorial lead. Terribly afraid of thunder and utterly distraught when his cat runs away, Hyakken Uchida’s suffering is highly self-centered and trivial in comparison with the nation’s contemporary tribulations. For his story to take emphasis over the wider implications of the vast changes going on around him suggests a stubborn resistance to change, and a preference for tradition and nostalgia over engagement with the present. These are probably the requisite variables of a cultural commentator and academic, but I’m not sure they make for the ingredients of an enjoyable cinematic persona. (I realise this won’t matter to some people. Engaging, comprehensible characters are not always present in great films. But I do seem to have a particularly low tolerance threshold for grumpy old pseudo-intellectuals.)
Watching Maadadayo I got to thinking about the practicalities of being basically a living deity among filmmakers, and yet having to make a picture with limited funds, support, tools . . . possibly even confidence. Kurosawa was 83 when the film was released. In the preceeding 30 years he’d only managed to complete 7 pictures, whereas his previous 7 films were wrapped-up in just 6 years. There were obviously a lot of obstacles: Finding international finance, mounting large-scale projects, struggling not to go out of fashion. Anyhow, some aspects of Kurosawa’s shooting style seem to have remained with him over the years. It’s apparent in probably Maadadayo’s most impressive scene (the first birthday party for Uchida) that several cameras are used to film the action from various angles simultaneously. The cutting between the points of view is just too sharp–considering the film’s scale and budget–for the staging to have been shot selectively over separate camera set-ups. It’s a method that’s long been employed by Kurosawa, and this conversation between Kurosawa and Hayao Miyazaki confirms that the multiple cameras were indeed used. In this instance, the technique would probably be justified as time- and cost-saving, but it’s also the continuation of a shooting practice within which quite elaborate staging and editing patterns are made simpler to achieve.
Kurosawa made another interesting comment in the Miyazaki conversation by asserting he didn’t really pay much attention to the actress playing Uchida’s wife (Kagawa). He preferred to scrutinise the performances of the male actors. After seeing rushes, he felt his confidence in her performance was justified. This makes a lot of sense to me because Kagawa’s understated work is a delight. Considering her role requires a pretty sustained demonstration of Orientalist charm, subservience, restraint, altruism and so on, she does awfully well to avoid becoming ingratiating and painful to watch.