Two scenes in Akira Kurosawa’s swan song Madadayo say it all, and in a way the latter scene repeats the same message as the former. The first scene of the film shows the Sensei, a German professor, appearing behind a blue door and entering a classroom. He stands in a platform most Westernized classrooms are equipped with. He announces his retirement from teaching. The whole class tells him that he will always be their Sensei, stands to show their allegiance to him. He pulls a handkerchief and dries his tears.
The second scene is Sensei’s first Madadayo banquet, in a German beer hall, a party held with the constraints of postwar finances. He drinks a glass of beer as big as his arms. His former students perform some curious, culturally esoteric ritual where they ask him if he’s ready – to die – and his frail old voice confidently bellows, “Madadayo,” meaning not yet.
Both scenes show the Sensei towering over his students, then seamlessly make him short and meek and humble within five minutes or less. He’s a great man, raised by his status, but he’s human and relatable. Kurosawa’s always shown masculinity as a contest but he refreshingly shows manliness as gentle and civilized. There’s still the war context and the Westernization of Japan. None of the men in the movie are shown literally fighting, but the Sensei is defiant and has successfully taught that defiance to his students.
Also, it’s a story about a man and his cat, if you’re willing to endure something like that. As a character study, it’s difficult for Madadayo to become a great film. His students repeatedly call him “a lump of gold without impurities,” which may be applied to this film. It’s no bracelet, but you’d be a fool to dismiss its beauty.
I am inclined to compare the cinematography of “Dersu Uzala” to a Hiroshige, but the film’s visuals come into their own, original being. Hiroshige would show us blossoms bordering the view, while other artwork and films about forests would show the vertical properties of the trees, blocking the sunlight. There are not a lot of animals shown in this film’s version of Siberia, but the two or three that show up do end up being like characters instead of just props.
Kurosawa is hailed as a master in black and white cinematography, but I am probably one of the daft ones who think that colour is his best friend. I like the films he made in the 70’s and 80’s compared to the dusty look his classic material. In this film, the trees crowd in and cozy up on the Russian surveyors and their eponymous Mongolian guide, although there is enough sunlight to make the footmen feel safe, for a while.
That’s the reason why I like this film – I don’t mind the good samurai versus bad samurai, but I love that nature can turn from pretty backdrop to harsh villain. The exact opposite of the crowded forests is the barren lakeside during winter, the object of Arseniev’s expedition. Getting lost from their colleagues, Dersu warns Arseniev to work fast and cut the grass before the sun disappears. The sunset looks just as menacing as the one that takes over the frame in “Lawrence of Arabia.” Arseniev faints a few times from exhaustion and cold and Dersu is there to save his life.
“Dersu Uzala” is not just a study of nature. The titular character is a great addition to great characters of colour in film, being more stern than your average Uncle Tom. It is also a study in friendship, and how friendships are more about the circumstances that begin them instead of the two parties involved. Just like friendships it is how some people are only fit for certain environments and certain times, and how the hostile forests and the urban order can do to those people.