Set in the 1940s, Akira Kurosawa's Madadayo looks at the life of a retired professor who is often surrounded by students of decades past, who have never ceased their devotion to their teacher.
Excessively formal in presentation, the characters of Madadayo don't really interact with one another in any natural context. The old professor's comic speeches make him seem more cutesy than inspiring.
The film shows us an old gent who is childlishly sweet enough to entertain, but nothing explains why a pack of middle-aged past school students would love him to such gosh-awful distraction. They behave as vassals still faithful to an impoverished lord, but for what reason they would love him deeply never convincingly manifests itself in this film.
Sentimentality drips off the film; major life-events, like getting one's home bombed during the war, or preparing for death, are rendered as meaningless & insipid as the professor himself. His tendency to weep with nostalgia underscores his weakness & lack of charisma, just the sort of old fart who would've been abandoned in old age rather than pandered to as occurs in this film.
Had it starred someone of the intensity & skill of Takashi Shimura, Kurosawa's star from Ikiru (1952) & Seven Samurai (1954), I'm sure such a great actor could've made the script convincing. But Shimura is long dead, & no one in Madadayo is so good as to fill in the gaps with depth of performance. Certainly Tatsuo Matsumura as the teary professor has none of the actorly strengths that might've made this film deeply heartwarming & weighty with sorrows, rather than merely tepid & a mite dull.
Still, Kurosawa can't actually be a bad director, & invests the film with enough style & pictorial interest that it is well worth watching, even if no mighty capper to his gigantic career. And it's perhaps his purest "Japanese" film, overcoming his homeland criticism that he too much imitated John Ford; this one is more in tune with Ozu in a "mundane things matter" mood. Unfortunately it's an approach Kurosawa doesn't master as well.
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