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DODES'KA-DEN

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Yoshitaka Zushi, Junzaburo Ban, Hiroshi Akutagawa, Noboru Mitani, Tomoko Yamazaki
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Audio: Japanese monaural
Subtitles: English
Video: Color, 1.33:1 aspect ratio
Studio: Criterion
Features: Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create documentary, trailer, essays
Length: 140 minutes
Release Date: March 17, 2009

I’m fed up with everything now.  Life is nothing but pain to me.

Film *** ½

In 1965, acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa released Red Beard, a film he felt to be the culmination of all his previous films.  It also marked the close of a long-term successful partnership with Toshiro Mifune, the director's favorite actor and star of many of Kurosawa's greatest films to date.  But after Red Beard, Kurosawa was eager to move in a new direction.  His next project was to be a big-budgeted, nonstop action adventure photographed on 70mm stock.  That movie, entitled The Runaway Train, was to mark Kurosawa’s transition to color film.

Unfortunately, a quagmire of pre-production conflicts ultimately derailed the project.  Undeterred, Kurosawa joined with Hollywood’s Twentieth-Century Fox for another big-budgeted film (Tora! Tora! Tora!).  Regrettably, this project too was soon embroiled in financial and production difficulties of its own, and Kurosawa became a casualty of acrimonious studio interference; the director was dismissed from the film and replaced by another Japanese director.  Once again, the Hollywood system had failed Akira Kurosawa.

By this time, the despondent director had gone nearly five years since the release of Red Beard with little to show for his efforts.  In a bid to restore the luster to Kurosawa’s international reputation, three of Japan’s top directors - Kon Ichikawa, Keisuke Kinoshita and Masaki Kobayashi - formed a new production company (the Club of the Four Knights) devoted to financing a new film project for their close friend and fellow director.  The result was finally Kurosawa’s first color film - Dodes’ka-den (1970).

For this new film, Kurosawa turned to a familiar author, Shugoro Yamamoto, whose works had been the inspiration for Kurosawa’s earlier films Sanjuro and Red Beard.  Yamamoto’s anthology “Town Without Seasons” would provide the source material for Dodes’ka-den.  The film would be shot quickly with economy, using standard-ratio 35mm rather than anamorphic widescreen.  As a throwback to Kurosawa’s early, more intimate style of filmmaking, Dodes’ka-den would also become one of Kurosawa’s most personal projects.

The film’s title can be translated as “clickety-clack,” a reference to one of the film’s character, a young boy obsessed with trains and trolleys.  That character, Rokuchan (Yoshitaka Zushi), is a harmless simpleton whose apparent chief affront to society is that he envisions himself the conductor of an imaginary streetcar.  Rokuchan performs his imaginary daily trolley runs amid the garbage and discarded metal scraps along the outskirts of Tokyo, oblivious to the taunts and stones thrown his way by local children who regard him as a freak.  Dodes’ka-den opens along one of Rokuchan’s daily jogs, a journey that takes viewers through several beautiful days in his neighborhood.  Only after Rokuchan has returned home, his imaginary trolley run done for the day, does the film come to a close.  Not quite a runaway train here, but perhaps a quieter voyage of a more intimate nature.

Dodes’ka-den, through a series of numerous interlacing storylines, follows the lives of a group of alienated people living within a haphazard gathering of earthen huts and wooden shacks.  The eccentric hoi polloi of this plebeian shantytown all attempt to lead relatively normal lives, seemingly unconcerned with their inability to ever transcend the circumstances of an existence outside the polite social mainstream.  There is a beggar (Noboru Mitani) who, along with his son, fantasize about a dream house; neither their apparent homelessness, nor the humiliating chore of scouring leftovers to eat from local restaurants, deters father and son from ignoring their abject poverty and dreaming of a bright tomorrow.  There is silent Hei (Hiroshi Akutagawa), a haunted man with hollow eyes; he has long disengaged himself from the world, his mind lost in the forgotten happiness of a failed marriage.  There are Hatsu and his drinking buddy, both of whom regularly seek abandon in liquor; these amusing drunks are not above trading their nagging wives, either.  There is Shima (Junzaburo Ban), a kindly man blessed by a devoted wife but cursed by his embarrassing nervous tic and his wife’s lack of polite manners; neither one is perfect, yet in their imperfections, husband and wife have learned to appreciate one another’s presence.  Then, there is the melancholy case of Katsuko (Tomoko Yamazaki), an overworked young girl abused by her selfish uncle and beyond the help of her ailing aunt.

These characters of Dodes’ka-den and many others present a panorama of the human condition and humanity’s innate ability to somehow find a way to coop in even the harshest of environments.  For the inhabitants of the world of Dodes’ka-den, unfulfilled dreams and fantasies provide seclusion away from, however briefly, the doldrums and despair of their real lives.  Some of the film’s storylines are amusing, others are bittersweet and poignant, and a few are downright depressing.  The film’s characters may reminisce about a better past, resign themselves to acceptance of the barren present, or even look to an uncertain future.

There are similarities between this open-ended film and The Lower Depths, an earlier black & white Kurosawa film that also dealt directly with the plights of the impoverished in Japan.  Both films embrace long, uninterrupted takes and a slow, deliberate pacing style.  But whereas The Lower Depths was mostly a period drama, the somber and occasionally surreal Dodes’ka-den explores an open narrative in modern Japan and suggests a certain universality in the struggle of all people, rich or poor.

In his later years, Kurosawa would come to regard Dodes’ka-den as his trial run for color, approaching film as though he were painting on canvas.  Dodes’ka-den would eventually pave the way for the spectacular visuals of Kagemusha, Ran, and Dreams.  But as the director’s first color film, Dodes’ka-den still displays a startlingly engaging and bold color scheme.  Kurosawa’s admiration for Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Part II can be seen in the highly-stylized aesthetic employed throughout Dodes’ka-den.  Painted backdrops establish a surreal ambiance, while the film’s outdoor sets suggest the stark harshness of a timeless wasteland.

In a sense, Kurosawa also felt a more intimate connection to the characters of Dodes’ka-den than to those of his other films.  He may even have envisioned himself as Rokuchan, the trolley freak who is the closest thing to Dodes’ka-den’s central character.  Rokuchan, on his imaginary trolley, initiates the audience’s journey into the lives of this collection of lost and desperate souls, orchestrating our glimpse into their joys and tragedies.  He is stoned and mocked but nevertheless continues endlessly with his beloved craft.  Rokuchan is not so very different from Kurosawa then, whose own love of filmmaking helped him to recover from the double disappointment of The Runaway Train and Tora! Tora! Tora! and the increasingly more vocal critique at the time of his film technique.  Fortunately, Kurosawa emerged from this difficult period in his life with renewed vigor, and he was able to demonstrate over the next two decades that he still had several masterpieces yet to create.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Andrei Konchalovsky’s Runaway Train (1985), based on Akira Kurosawa’s original concept and starring Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, and Rebecca De Mornay, turned out to be one of the best all-out action flicks of the 1980’s.

Video ***

Dodes’ka-den is presented in a newly restored, high-definition digital transfer, made from a 35mm low-contrast print struck from the original camera negative.  The film is shown in the director’s preferred 1.33:1 format.

Overall, the film looks quite good with its vibrant and dramatic colors, almost overly-saturated (for effect) at times.  While there is a slight jump in the frame around 23 minutes into the film, and the video quality displays some graininess, moderate detail level, and occasional emulsion fluctuations, none of this is out of the ordinary for a Japanese film of Dodes’ka-den’s era.

Audio ***

The film is dialogue-driven and is presented in monaural Japanese with optional English subtitles.  The soundtrack was remastered at 24-bit from a 35mm optical soundtrack.  Audio is quite adequate for narrative purposes even if it is not particularly bombastic.

Features ** ½

There are two supplemental features included on this disc.  One is a somewhat lengthy theatrical trailer, and the other is a 36-minute installment from the 2003 Toho Masterworks series, Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create.  This documentary concerns the making of Dodes’ka-den, with interview clips from director Akira Kurosawa, script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, producer Yoichi Matsue, actors Yoshitaka Zushi and Hisashi Igawa, and other members of the cast and crew.  Also shown are production designs artwork, excerpts from the film, production photographs, and rare footage of Kurosawa directing.

This Criterion release comes with a handsome 24-page booklet, inside of which are DVD and film credits, production stills and artwork, and two essays.  The first essay, “True Colors” by film historian Stephen Prince, provides historical context for Dodes’ka-den.  Prince also discusses the film’s radical color scheme and symbolism.  The second essay is an interview with Teruyo Nogami, a Kurosawa scholar and former assistant.  Nogami recalls anecdotes from the making of Dodes’ka-den and contributes some original artwork as well.

Summary:

While one of the director’s lesser-known works, Dodes’ka-den nevertheless occupies an important place in Kurosawa’s life, demonstrating his quick mastery of color film technique and foreshadowing the brilliant works yet to come in the limelight of the director’s celebrated career.

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