Kurosawa's Last Film; Life in New York's Train Tunnels

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Madadayo Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Of the dwindling numbers of filmgoers who pay attention to foreign films, surely the majority keeps an eye out for the titles blazoned "Masterpiece!" and "Four stars!" But I tend to be even more curious about the smaller, problematic, less heralded works, because their very deficiencies often reveal the fundament of every artist of genius: individual character. That's the way Madadayo is. Not only is it not a great film, it doesn't care the least about the conventional trophies of greatness. It is what it is, which to say: the film of a man with absolutely nothing to prove.

Other legendary directors have left us small, idiosyncratic valedictory works?and I'll admit to an unquenchable fondness for the likes of Le Petit Theatre de Jean Renoir, Hitchcock's Family Plot and Fassbinder's Querelle?but Kurosawa's looks unusually anomalous because his name so often suggests the grand, the canonical. Coincidentally, Film Forum is now hosting a five-week series titled "The Golden Age of the Foreign Film," the very premise of which hints that interest in subtitled films is slouching toward the museums. The series' contents are thoughtful, ecumenical and orthodox enough to please most Episcopalians (a denomination once defined as "the people who tell others to shush in movies"). Of the 52 titles, 42 are European. The remaining decad, all Asian, is composed of Ray's Apu Trilogy plus seven films from Japan: one each by Ozu, Mizoguchi, Teshigahara and Oshima, and three by Kurosawa.

That pronounced dominance, together with the fact that some pointyheads would still sneer at it, reflects the paradoxicality of his renown. On one hand, Rashomon's success at the 1951 Venice Film Festival effectively minted the idea that there was cinematic art beyond the West, and Kurosawa followed that coup with enough big, serious, crowd-pleasing movies that in many parts of the world his robust blend of East and West became synonymous with Japanese cinema. On the other hand, his broad-stroke, transcultural manner got him branded insufficiently Japanese both at home and among cognoscenti in the West. The latter, in the silly, snobby way of purists, embraced Ozu and Mizoguchi as "truly Japanese," when of course nothing could be more Japanese than Kurosawa's way of refitting Western tropes and then selling them back to the West.

The result of the controversy that swirled around him seems to have been that he came to overidentify with the international image of himself as a celluloid sensei creating grand Japanese epics for the world. Thus the failure of Dodeskaden (1970) sent him into a suicidal tailspin from which only the Oscar given Dersu Uzala (1975) rescued him. Of his last two official epics, the haunted, ambiguous, relatively impromptu Kagemusha (1980) holds up far better than the King Lear-derived Ran (1985), a film with brilliant patches but one so overdetermined and self-important that it has no room for tragedy's doubts and unexpected frissons.

Kurosawa's final three movies, though, are remarkable because they're so evidently the work of a man who has laid down the epic-maker's mantle but still has talents and themes to exercise. Dreams (1990) I think is one of the best films of his career, and vastly underrated. Playful, almost childlike in its fecund imaginings, yet nervily serious in its denunciation of man's destruction of nature, its eight-part unfolding utilizes a positive-negative pattern that, if carefully scrutinized, should be "Japanese" enough to please any purist. Rhapsody in August (1991) is likewise vigorous, earnest and personal, even though it also shows him sliding into peevish self-justification and unexamined nostalgia.

Madadayo has this fascination: it seems consciously made as a final film, yet it doesn't go so far as offering a final artistic testament. In effect, it's a film about retirement, crafted by a man who has to stay busy and still can't face the stark reality of his own mortality.

It opens with a scene so engaging and smartly mounted that it sparks the hope that the entire film will be as compelling. The scene is a Tokyo school in 1943. As the Professor (Tatsuo Matsumura) enters the classroom where he's taught German for decades, his class suddenly stops its noise and comes to attention. Using a wide shot from the back of the room, Kurosawa shows the Professor moving in from the right and catching sight of a cloud that hangs over the desks at the left of the frame. It only takes a couple of seconds for us to learn that the cloud has a very prosaic explanation?it's cigarette smoke?but during that brief spell, as the unexpected image echoes against the conventions of Japanese art and Kurosawa's reverence for nature, we are surprised by a feeling of mystery and wonder that's as captivating as it is, alas, fleeting.

The scene's point is far more concrete. Though he's only 60, the Professor has decided to retire from teaching and live on the modest income he derives from writing. His students revere him so much, though, that several of them stay in constant touch with him, and the group as a whole stages an annual banquet where, in a fondly humorous ritual, they sing out, "Madha-kai?" ("Are you ready?": i.e., to move on to the next world) and the Professor sings back, "Madadayo!" ("Not yet!"). From the story's opening until the last banquet we see depicted, 17 years pass.

Kurosawa based his script on the writings of Prof. Hyakken Uchida, a retired German lit teacher whose old age presumably paralleled that of the film's main character. Not surprisingly given its source, Madadayo has a problem shared by many movies based on memoirs and short stories: it feels dramatically unshaped, rambling and episodic. Yet if those qualities occasionally combine into an overarching feeling of self-indulgence, it would be hard to claim that that's entirely inappropriate: What is retirement, after all, if not life's one haven for the self-indulgent?

At first, we watch the Professor wryly attempt to negotiate the terms of his retreat from the world. He posts strict rules on his door discouraging visitors, and puts up joking signs showing burglars the way into?and out of?his modest abode. He seems, in other words, to think that he has created a hermitage that will remove him from the world's cares and other people. But life plays its usual tricks: the deeper he goes into retirement, the more he depends on others. The point is made in no uncertain terms when an air raid destroys his house and the Professor and his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) are obliged to live in a small hut until his students provide him with a new house.

It's a measure of Madadayo's andecdotal looseness that it takes a lost cat to give it a climactic surge of momentum and focus. Nora, the Professor's haughty pet, disappears one day and sends his life spinning into crisis. Suddenly, it seems as if everything depends on the return of one wayward feline, and all of the Professor's supporters spring into action, telephoning, leafletting and going to extraordinary lengths to inform the community. Kurosawa stages all of this in a way that makes you believe he shares the campaign's urgency. For a few scenes, the movie has a quickening pulse that brings together the story's strands of memory and affection, individual wishes and collective action.

For all its self-concern, Madadayo somewhat curiously is not a work of self-examination. The tale's main emotional axis is the students' extraordinary regard for their former teacher, which remains unchallenged throughout; if anything, it grows stronger with the years. Kurosawa seems to feel that this unstinting honor is a good thing. Perhaps it symbolizes for him the kind of respect for elders that characterized a bygone Japan. More likely, it's the sort of esteem he hoped to enjoy himself, and in showing the Professor's attachment to his public renown, he lightly mocks his own attachment to reputation and wordly ties.

Yet there's little feeling of introspective acuity to any of this. The film never peeks behind the Professor's public persona or suggests that there might be even a slight discrepancy between the private man and the exalted image cherished by his students. In a surely unintended way, this reminds us that there was often an awkward interface between society and the self in Kurosawa's films, and in his life (he died in 1998). Like many of his main characters, he wanted the world to conform to his dreams, and was stunned when it didn't. In Madadayo, he again tries to remake the world rather than probing the self's flawed understanding of it, and thereby comes up with a work that combines craftsmanslike rigor with a kind of soft, self-cushioning sentimentality. Yet in this, we find real feelings and the touch of one of the cinema's true masters?things you can't say of the synthetic creations that inhabit most movie screens today.

Dark Days Directed by Marc Singer

I must confess that entire weeks sometimes pass without the following thought crossing my mind: I'm actually not much different from a homeless crack addict who lives with the rats in the train tunnels underneath New York. But the thought did occur as I was watching Marc Singer's Dark Days, a fascinating nonfiction film about denizens of the Amtrak tunnels that fan out from the bowels of Penn Station, and I recall it here as a tribute to Singer's skill at rendering his subjects in their full, matter-of-fact humanity. How do people survive in a world of constant darkness, killer rodents and bad drugs? Well, much as they do in Village apartments or uptown penthouses: by embracing useful illusions and doing whatever it takes to get by.

Singer supposedly went underground and lived with the homeless for a few months before deciding to make a film about tunnel life. Once he got started, he used other homeless people as both his subjects and his crew. He gives us portraits of an intriguing array of these dispossessed, who seem a lot more pragmatic and wryly self-aware than evil or desperate. In fact, they're very enterprising in their own way, building underground homes that are often elaborate constructions with kitchens, bedrooms and dog runs.

They're a heteroclite group of people in transition, in other words, rather than some cadre of the Dostoevskian damned. The thing that interested me most about Singer's presentation of their netherworld, though, is that he chose to shoot it on black-and-white film. These days, that's an esthetic choice that can only be described as romantic. Yet it's one I agree with in context. The sensible alternative, shooting on digital color video, would have been far cheaper and easier but I think it would've had the effect of subliminally banalizing the subject matter, to the point that you'd lose interest after a little while. Black-and-white film, on the other hand, creates a striking, involving, somewhat mythic image whose very fragility reminds us, as only celluloid can, that the people we are watching are at once eternal and highly perishable.

The winner of three awards at Sundance this year, Dark Days is an odd, haunting, bracingly uncategorizable film that's far more akin to a Vigoesque poetic essay than to any kind of obvious social polemic. It will surely prove unforgettable to New Yorkers who see in it a dark mirror of the city's above-ground warrens and quandaries.

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