Akira Kurosawa's thirtieth and last film, Madadayo, was completed in 1992 and, criminally, is only now being shown in the U.S. (He died in 1998.) It's customary to call a master director's final film a summation, or a leave-taking, but most often this sentiment is bunk: Artists don't get to pick their moments with such precision. And yet certain lucky filmmakers do manage to pull off what amounts to an orchestrated valedictory. John Huston did it when he made The Dead, which is voluminously rich in its intimations of mortality. Madadayo is similarly concerned with the approaches of death, and of what it means to have lived a good life.
It's an extremely formalized work, a series of mostly stationary set pieces, and it will disappoint viewers who still think of Kurosawa as the thunderous, supple master of films like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, or a later work like Ran, which, by a fine piece of timing, is currently in national rerelease. Kurosawa has always somewhat mistakenly been called the most Western of Japanese directors. Partly this is because a number of his movies were remade by Hollywood, or were derived from writers ranging from Shakespeare and Dostoevsky to Ed McBain, but it's also because his vigorous, multi-camera technique in his most famous movies broke with the traditional orthodoxies of masters like Yasujiro Ozu. You can go through an entire festival of Ozu films without spotting a single tracking shot; his imagery has a stilled, sacramental quality. And yet Kurosawa's imagery can have this quality, too, and no more so than in Madadayo, in which a lifetime of moviemaking -- Kurosawa was 83 when he made it -- seems to have pared down his technique to its essentials. We are looking at the work of a director who no longer needs to charge the screen with dynamism in order to achieve his effects. He's reaching for something more quietly ineffable, a rigorous splendor. He asks his audience to contemplate, in a kind of communal silence, the beauty of the imagery, and the beauty of the emotion behind the imagery.
Madadayo is a celebration of a professor beloved by his university students. It begins in 1943 as Hyakken Uchida (Tatsuo Matsumura) announces to his class his plan to retire, after 30 years of teaching, in order to write books. Professor Uchida was a real person who taught German literature and wrote novels and essays and haiku on subjects ranging from locomotives to the wartime Tokyo air raids, but Kurosawa doesn't provide us with the contours of an academic life; his professor is not so much an actual person as a vivid essence. Uchida is an idealization of grace, and Kurosawa's identification with him is total: This man, we are made to feel, is the fulfillment of the director's own best self.
The film is marked by a series of birthday tributes to Uchida put on by his students, starting with the professor's 60th and culminating in his 77th and, perhaps, last. In the years between, in a variety of mostly dry, sweetly comical situations, we see Uchida and his wife (Kyôko Kagawa) play host to the students, who at first cannot stand to see their sensei living in such cramped circumstances and organize to find him more spacious quarters. They are honored to watch over him. When Uchida's much-doted-upon cat is lost, sending him into a deep depression, the students form a search party. They never think to make light of his grief. He suffers because, as one of the pupils says with pride, "his sensitivity and imagination are beyond us." And yet the students also recognize what Uchida's wife realizes, too: He has never really grown up. Uchida is revered by his students both for his calm wisdom and for his childlike bemusement, which is perceived as a kind of holy innocence. Uchida makes his final birthday speech to the children and grandchildren of his students, and in this moment he seems a perfect fusion of man and cherub; his rapport with these young ones is without a trace of condescension. "Find something in life you are able to treasure," he tells them. Uchida is a man whose kindness has saved him from despair.
It is poetically perfect that Kurosawa closes the film with a dream of Uchida's in which the old man imagines himself as a boy. Kurosawa's dream sequences have always been transcendent, and this brief final scene is so quietly devastating that it summons up, in a rush, the profoundest melancholy. Throughout the film we have seen the students and Uchida play a children's game: They ask him if he is ready to pass into the afterlife and he responds heartily, "Madadayo," which means "No, not yet." In his dreams Uchida conjures this hide-and-seek game between children and that boy, and the screen at the end is filled with a lustrous wash of colors. They are the colors of a sky in which the sun could be rising -- or setting.