April 21, 2009


1993 film
written & directed by Akira Kurosawa
based on the works and life of Hyakken Uchida

Since last July, I've worked my way through all but one of Akira Kurosawa's films (SANSHIRO SUGATA 2 is tricky to find) and here before me lies the task of reviewing this, his final work. I've started this review about a dozen times by now, always going back and deleting the opening lines before I get much farther. It's a struggle putting into words just how much Kurosawa's films have affected me over the last nine months. I feel I've really gotten to know the man as I saw his works, his growth and development over time, even read about his life in his own words, so all I can think right now is how much I'm going to miss him, how regretful I am that we will see nothing new spring from his abilities. But that's life. And what better way for Kurosawa to teach me this reality than through a film where several generations of students hold dear their retired professor, Hyakken Uchida.

It's just before the war that Professor Uchida announces his retirement. He's learned that his published works are making enough to earn a living and feels he's impacted enough young minds by now that he should no longer be required to divide his time between professions. In his honor, a group of former students, most now middle aged with professions and families of their own, put together a big annual birthday celebration where they share drinks and memories, and Professor Uchida faces down his looming death (represented by an astoundingly huge mug of beer) and proudly proclaims, "Madadayo (not yet)!"

Kurosawa has left behind the bitterness and cynicism with which he previously painted these final, aging years, and now projects a more optimistic vision where the younger generation allies to protect, serve, and honor their beloved mentor, best exemplified by the main quartet of Hisashi Igawa, Joji Tokoro, Masayuki Yui, and Akira Terao, all of whom drop whatever they're doing to act as children to the childless man. Despite losing most of his peers who regularly appeared in the broader body of his work throughout the 40s, 50s, and 60s, Kurosawa kept finding new youngsters (relatively) like these that were quickly becoming a new troupe of familiar faces in this final stretch. And as a rare carryover from those earlier days, we get Kyoko Kagawa, beautiful as ever, as the professor's wife.

It's a shame Takashi Shimura had already long-since passed away because I can't help imaging him in the role of Professor Uchida, who greats his students with bright, inquiring eyes and firm lessons coated with a goofy, deadpan wit. But don't take that as a criticism of actor Tatsuo Matsumura, because he excels in the lead, giving the professor all of the qualities mentioned above and filling him with a warmth and insight that makes it impossible for us to avoid respecting and admiring him just as much as his students.

In a storytelling device I haven't seen since Kurosawa's first post-war film, NO REGRETS FOR OUR YOUTH, the story is spread out over a surprising stretch of time, nearly 20 years. We're carried through the stiff optimism of the pre-war days, to the terror of the bombing raids, through the despair of rubble and economic depression, to a gradual brightening of the days as troubles sort themselves out and comfort reigns. It's almost as though Kurosawa took us on a compressed journey of that stretch of films, from 1943's SANSHIRO SUGATA, to 1965's RED BEARD, that mark the beginning and middle eras of his films, and used the theme of old age and multiple generations to mark that of his last.

Once again, I'm not really sure what else to say or if I'm even capable of expressing my thoughts properly. This film is a stunning achievement, not only acting as a reflection upon the director's legacy, but standing up as a damn fine film in its own right, one that had me laughing and crying, cheering and hissing in all the right places. As far as career endings go, you couldn't ask for a finer mark of punctuation than this.

I'll miss you Akira Kurosawa. You truly are The Master.

(internet movie database)

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