I can't quite believe that in the more than four years that I've been blogging both on my old AOL site and with this journal, that I have not previously written about Akira Kurosawa (if the search engines are to be believed), since he's right up there with my favourite directors. He was incapable of writing and directing an uninteresting film, not just the samurai epics for which he is renowned and the literary dramas, both often starring Toshiro Mifune, but also for some of his smaller tales. He had fallen out of favour with the Japanese studios in the 70s and his later films were largely financed with the help of the US-director pack of that period, Scorsese, Coppola, et. al. and proved that he had not lost his amazing touch during his very long career.
This film is his very last one and has not been widely available. It is an old man's movie as he considers the meaning of life and the approach of death, yet it is a joyous affair with just a touch of underlying melancholy The story opens in 1943 as a beloved professor (of German ironically) announces his retirement to his adoring students. He moves to a small and simple house with his loyal wife and there they entertain favourite students, starting with a 60th birthday celebration. The house is fire-bombed during the War and the couple move to a simple shack, but their hospitality remains. The ringleaders of his old students decide to hold an annual birthday bash for their "solid-gold" professor (and subsequently club together to build a new house for him). At each of these, after chugalugging a large glass of beer -- an amazing amount of drink is consumed during the telling -- the students call out "Are you ready" and the professor replies "Madadayo" (not yet) which is the traditional child's response in hide-and-go-seek. At the first party, the students take turns to say something brief but positive about the professor, apart from one man who claims to be unable to make speeches but who can recite all of the local stations on a long train route (which amusingly continues long after the others have finished). As the years progress, the gatherings grow in size to include wives, children, and eventually grand-children and become more lavish, until the old man is taken ill during his 77th celebration.
What comes across is the great love, affection, and consideration that the professor has inspired in all of his students and his continued good humour and impish behaviour even in adversity. The film is not perfect; there is one section that goes on far too long concerning the depression caused by a lost cat (the couple have no children of their own), but this is a minor fault in a truly moving story. It is far more than just a Japanese "Goodbye, Mr. Chips".
Special mention should be made of the actor in the lead role, Tatsuo Matsumura, who played the professor from 58-ish through to 77, aging appropriately in the process. I was amazed to discover that he was actually already 79 years when he took on the role, but all of the casting was spot-on. This film is the perfect swan song and grace note for the director who was called 'Sensei' -- the Master!