(1970) Directed by Akira Kurosawa; Written by: Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni; Based on the novel The Town Without Seasons (aka: Kisetsu No Nai Machi) by Shûgorô Yamamoto; Starring: Yoshitaka Zushi, Kin Sugai, Toshiyuki Tonomura, Tatsuo Matsumura, Tomoko Yamazaki and Shinsuke Minami; Available on DVD.
Rating: **** ½
“I can’t stand working with total seriousness; I’ve never been able to even function that way. I said to my staff, ‘I want to make this one sunny, cheerful, light-hearted, and charmingly pretty.’” – Akira Kurosawa (Excerpt from 1972 interview with Yoshi Shirai, from Akira Kurosawa Interviews, edited by Bert Cardullo)
Bring up Akira Kurosawa’s name, and most individuals will likely associate the filmmaker with his samurai epics such as Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress and Ran, while some might think of his smaller scope dramas, such as Ikiru. Although he gained his notoriety largely on the basis of the films in the first category, his output in the latter category proved he was equally adept at telling more intimate stories. 1970’s Dodes'ka-den is another example of Kurosawa working on a smaller scale, depicting characters that the bulk of society would rather ignore. He once again collaborated with writing partners Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto to create the multi-faceted script, which deftly balances the stories of several residents in a slum near Tokyo.
Dodes'ka-den is Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound a train makes, rolling down the tracks. The word also serves as a mantra, spoken by Roku-chan (Yoshitaka Zushi), a mentally ill teenage boy obsessed with trolley cars. He imagines himself to be a conductor, running the train on its daily route through the slum, amidst ramshackle homes and heaps of garbage. He continues his unwavering route night and day, oblivious to local children’s taunts of “trolley freak.” Like a trolley stopping briefly at a station, the film pauses to showcase the daily lives of people residing in the slum. There is no solitary protagonist. While the characters’ lives occasionally intersect, the focus is on their individual stories, rather than how they converge.
As my wife is fond of saying, the rich and poor share many of the same family conflicts, but unlike their wealthier counterparts, impoverished people’s problems are inordinately out in the open for everyone to see. Kurosawa doesn’t depict the slum’s resident’s as exceptionally virtuous, full of quiet nobility, but a flawed community of desperate people, eking out a meager existence the best they can. It’s a vantage point refreshingly free of frothy sentiment or idealism. It’s not all drudgery and bleakness, however. Life can have its bright spots, amidst the bad times. The community gossips sit in the middle of what passes for the town square, commenting on the residents’ sordid lives like a Greek chorus. In one sweet moment, a father (Shinsuke Minami) with a philandering wife sits down to dinner with his five children (all presumably from different fathers), and reassures them, despite harsh accusations from the neighbors. He hides his pain, instead of taking it out on the children, and embraces them as his own. In another story, two inebriated friends, discontented with their respective wives, swap spouses only to discover that the grass isn’t always greener.
One of the saddest stories concerns a vagrant (Noboru Mitani) and his son (Hiroyuki Kawase), who live in an abandoned car, and beg at city restaurants for food. While they live off the scraps that others throw away, the father envisions an ostentatious mansion for them to live in, creating it room by room. In another story, a loathsome man (Tatsuo Matsumura) subjects his niece Katsuko (Tomoko Yamazaki) to emotional and sexual abuse. Yamazaki is memorable and heartbreaking as Katsuko, who remains reticent in the face of terrible mistreatment. She walks with her head bowed, as if expecting the worst to happen at any moment. In one of the film’s greater ironies, she finally lashes out with violence, but at the only person who shows her kindness.
Kurosawa described Dodes'ka-den “as a trial run for using color,” (from the documentary It is Wonderful to Create) and it shows. Kurosawa painted each scene before it was filmed, and ensured that the cinematographers, Takao Saito and Yasumichi Fukuza reflected that aesthetic. Watching the bold hues splash across the screen made me feel as if I were seeing a color film for the first time.
Whenever Kurosawa’s career is discussed, Dodes'ka-den usually gets relegated to footnote status, mainly because of the unfortunate events that surrounded it. The film didn’t receive a warm reception from audiences at the time of its release, and Kurosawa fell into a deep depression, ultimately attempting suicide. Thankfully for everyone, he survived to continue making films that reflected his personal vision. Dodes'ka-den affirms that greatness can not only be found in the broad strokes, but the fine details, I hesitate to call Dodes'ka-den a “slice of life” film. Rather, I’d call it life itself. There is no conventional “payoff” in the stories. No one experiences an epiphany about their condition. Life and death will go on, as it always does in the slum. To some viewers nothing will seem to have been resolved, but life is messy, and the lives of the characters only reflect that. Dodes'ka-den is a beautiful, sometimes painful to watch film that deserves more attention from Kurosawa enthusiasts and casual film fans alike.