Endurance Training

Titanic Town plunges us into the surreal conditions of civil war, where people pursue their needs and desires regardless of the risk involved. The fact that a kid might catch a bullet on his way to pick up a date doesn't stop girls and boys from their romantic pursuits. Annie's teenage angst has less to do with the danger she's in every day than the fact that classmates ostracize her because of her mother's supposed British sympathies. Walters and O'Neill insightfully flesh out the mother-daughter conflict, even though the longer Bernie persists in her naïveté (she'd have to be an idiot not to know she was being co-opted by the British), the less believable she is as a character. Titanic Town isn't convincing on every front, but as a political conversation piece, it's potentially effective.

Madadayo, the last film of Akira Kurosawa, is unabashedly personal and uncool. I don't know if Kurosawa, who was 83 when he made the film, admitted to himself that it would be his last, but he must have known he was near the end of his life. In their late works, great artists sometimes risk breaking the rules—taboos even—that govern the making of art: Thou shalt not be sentimental; thou shalt not expose your desire to be loved; and, in the particular case of Kurosawa, thou shalt not be so un-Japanese as to express transcendence through the music of Vivaldi. Madadayo, which opens here seven years after its initial release, was pretty much dismissed for all these infractions by both the pro- and anti-Kurosawa critical camps, but between you and me, dear reader, I love it to death.

Shave dwellers: Dee and Ralph in Dark Days
Photo: Film Forum
Shave dwellers: Dee and Ralph in Dark Days


Dark Days
Directed by Marc Singer
A Palm Pictures and Wide Angle release
Film Forum
Through September 12

Titanic Town
Directed by Roger Michell
Written by Anne Devlin
A Shooting Gallery release
Opens September 1

Written and directed by Akira Kurosawa
A Winstar release
Opens September 1

Gently ironic, Madadayo evokes baldly personal feelings and deeply held, easy-to-ridicule beliefs at one remove. The film is a meditation on the life and writings of the essayist and novelist Hyakken Uchida, who in middle age retired from teaching German literature to write full-time. Among his finest works is a collection of essays entitled Nora, My Lost Cat. Thus, the protagonist (Tatsuo Matsumura) of Madadayo (English translation: "Not Yet") is a German-lit professor who retires in 1943—smack in the middle of World War II, and the very year that Kurosawa directed his first film—and spends the rest of his life at home writing (not a very cinematic activity). His companions are his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) and two cats who enter his life consecutively, and ever in attendance are his devoted former pupils—each year, on the anniversary of his retirement, they throw a banquet in his honor.

Madadayo is basically a film structured as three set pieces with lots of picture-perfect downtime in between. The development of postwar Japan is suggested by the difference between the scruffiness of the first anniversary banquet and the respectable opulence of the 20th, both hilariously drunken affairs. The centerpiece of the film is an extended sequence in which Nora, the professor's much doted-upon cat, goes missing. The professor frantically searches for her and obsesses over her fate, long past the point of what would be considered rational. Through the images of Nora that completely occupy the professor's imagination—either she's happily leaping about the garden or miserably trapped in bombed-out rubble—we realize that the entire film is about identification and attachment, and the separation and loss inscribed within them. In other words, eros and thanatos. Or maybe it's just an unembarrassed reflection on a man and his cat.

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