Akira Kurosawa’s first color film, Dodes’ka-den, bursts with vibrant hues like a Technicolor musical. Yet it is arguably his most depressing work. A commercial flop when initially released (its failure so upset the director he attempted suicide), it has never gained a classic reputation. That’s too bad, because it deserves one.
I rediscovered Dodes’ka-den last night at the Pacific Film Archive, where it was screened as part of their summer-long Akira Kurosawa Centennial series. I had seen it twice before—in the late ‘70s at the Roxie and in the early ‘80s, also at the PFA. It was high-time I revisited it.
(Speaking of Dodes’ka-den and the PFA, it was the first film the Archive ever screened, back in 1971. Craig Valenza ran the projectors back then, and as the PFA’s head projectionist, still did it last night. Read this interview with him if you’re curious.)
Five years before Nashville, Kurosawa invented the art-house genre forever associated with Robert Altman: a collage of interweaving stories, set in the same general location, with the characters occasionally connectiing. And I doubt that anyone ever did it better.
Kurosawa set Dodes’ka-den (his first film in five years, and his last one for another five) in a slum—almost a shantytown. The houses look rickety and thrown together. There’s no running water except a single outdoor spigot where women gather to wash their clothes and gossip (providing something of a Greek chorus). He built the exterior set in a city dump, turning it into an island of squalor in a sea of trash.
The stories he sets in these locations, like those in Red Beard, illustrate the grinding, physical and moral decay of poverty. A drunk abuses his overworked teenage niece. A blind man refuses to speak to anyone, including the former lover coming to beg forgiveness. An amiable man tries to pretend he doesn’t know that his wife constantly cheats and that his children are not really his. A homeless man and his young son live out of the dead shell of an automobile, and talk about the beautiful house they will build.
But unlike Red Beard, charity does little help, and occasional harm. One act of charity leads to the recipient’s death. Another good soul, acting out of kindness and concern, gets stabbed for his efforts. (No wonder this wasn’t a commercial success.)
Yet there are touches of humor and useful kindness, most coming from an elderly engraver who helps his neighbors in small, clever, and often funny ways. And there are the two habitually drunken workers whose long-suffering wives trade husbands. (Alcohol and sex appear to be the main ways these people cope with their misery.)
And tying it all together is the “trolley freak,” a mentally-disabled boy who thinks he’s a trolley car conductor, and spends his days driving his imaginary streetcar through the neighborhood saying “dodes’ka-den, dodes’ka-den, dodes’ka-den” (roughly translated as “clickity-clack”).
There’s a joke about Charlie Chaplin: He fought talkies longer than anyone else, but when he finally accepted them, he wouldn’t shut up. The same applies to Kurosawa and color. Dodes’ka-den pops with bold, vibrant colors that often become surreal and expressionistic. The result makes this depressing subject matter visually beautiful. (Kurosawa studied painting before he became a filmmaker.) The music track also seems meant for a happier film.
Others disagree, but to my mind, the joyful colors and music increase the sense of stark hopelessness by suggesting that life should be better. And the technique isn’t always happy. Kurosawa exaggerates the color of a sick man’s face, and the result isn’t pretty. And the music is used sparingly.
I hadn’t remembered just how good Dodes’ka-den is. This really is another Kurosawa masterpiece.