Akira Kurosawa: Dodes'ka-den (1970) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: Dodes’ka-den (1970)

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The first time I watched Dodes’ka-den I had decided to work through Akira Kurosawa’s filmography from end to beginning and it was one of the first films I watched.  I’d previously seen Ikiru, Ran, Seven Samurai, and a few others so I wasn’t quite prepared for something as weird and nauseatingly colorful as Dodes’ka-den.  It quickly became one of my favorite Kurosawa films and has sat lovingly in my memory for the last three years.

Now I’ve got a greater grasp of the scope of Kurosawa’s work and this seems less an aberration and more a depressing retread of some of the ideas he has touched on in the past.  I am a little less in love with the film now as each of the character’s plot threads stretch on a bit too long.  But I appreciate what Kurosawa was trying to do and how elegantly it actually ties into his filmography.

Dodes’ka-den is basically a successful version of The Lower Depths filtered through Kurosawa’s then front-and-center depression and awkward delight at being able to work with color for the first time.  The rough outline of the plot is the same as Depths.  We watch a collection of poor people trying to find a way to live in the slums which, in this film, is a giant garbage pile that has been arranged into a little village.  Kurosawa visits with each one of the occupants through the eyes of a mentally retarded man-child who believes that his mom is the stupid one and that he is both train conductor and train.

As bright as the colors of Dodes’ka-den are this is easily the most depressing story Kurosawa has ever told.  The lives of the occupants of the slum in The Lower Depths have a significant greater grasp of their current situation than the people picking through the trash piles of Dodes’ka-den.  They are the object of derision through their ambassador conductor who symbolizes how they are seen from the outside as a group of kids mock and throw stones at him.  The other villagers are somehow less lucky and more clueless.Everyone has weird troubles.  There’s the perpetually drunken pair of friends randomly swap wives without ever really loving or caring to love the revolving partner, which goes for the wives as well.  There’s the man with the face of death that comes to town unannounced and sits quietly while one of the women in town recognizes and tries to get him to acknowledge her.  There is the Greek chorus of women who comment on everyone out of earshot but seem doomed to wash the same clothes forever.  That’s just three stories and the film has roughly eight, including the most delusional chapter about a homeless man and his young friend who become a wraith and zombie.

That last story is the one which showcases just how expressive Kurosawa decided to make his color film.  He approached the new expanse with his traditional restraint and, which is to say none at all, and makes it incredibly vibrant.  That’s a word I’m used to using to describe the pulsing sensation of life but in this case is just in complete sensitive empathy with the environment.  The man-child’s home is like a stained-glass cathedral filled with drawings of him as a conductor, watching over his poor mother as she prays every day.  The costumes are wonderful, with the drunken husbands a mishmash of color and ill-fitting clothes which showcase just how much they have to scramble to survive.  Then there is the gradual devolution of the homeless man and child, faces clear but glistening to begin with but slowly growing grayer to the point where Kurosawa has practically painted a skull on the child and sunk the man’s eyes into deep darkness.

The spectacular sequence in What Dreams May Come of Robin Williams diving into paint could have come from this film.  Without computers, Kurosawa treats the landscape as a literal canvass for him to paint on.  It comes attached with many depressing stories but the liberty and nearly reckless display of environment manipulation is amazing.  His love of Van Gough is on display here with the perpetually shifting emotional tone of the landscape matching Kurosawa’s characters going from multicolored panels haphazardly assembled to nearly black automobile interiors which double as tombs.

There’s a lot I continue to love, but there are also some diminishing returns I’d like to address.  Before I do so, how was your first trip into this bizarre landscape?I'm more in line with your second-viewing impression. The movie is uneven for me, which I'll get to in a minute, but is nevertheless an interesting case of Kurosawa trying to deal with some of his tried and true themes in a redefined medium. The use of color affects everything from quirky small details—the way the two men you mentioned wear clothes that color-code them to their wives and homes—to the atmosphere and emotional resonance of key scenes—the shot where the homeless man exits the dark car and raises his head into an obviously painted sunset on the horizon is chilling. The framing and compositions seem distinctly Kurosawa and remain in line with what we're used to from other films, but at times his almost expressionistic use of color adds a new dimension. It's like a useful version of 3D.

A weird thing happened while I was watching Dodes'ka-den. I started out pretty well at a flat-line.  I wasn't particularly interested in seeing more of the same stories of class and poverty Kurosawa has hit so many times before (typically with diminishing returns each new time around), so once the film moved away from its unexpected opening with the boy and his invisible trolly, I started to fade pretty fast. Then the weird thing happened: I became gradually more engrossed in the characters' lives without entirely understanding why, and a feeling of “we've seen this before” monotony transformed into a kind of reverent patience. The relentless assault of depressing circumstances and tragic situations is not new, especially at this stage in his career—you could write a one-man stage play about his life called Akira Kurosawa is Sad and you'd have your work cut out for you—but here, at least for a short while, he elevates these stories to a new and subtly different level than we're used to, and for that I was willing to go along.Your comparison with The Lower Depths helped me determine specifically why it was that I was more taken with the story here. I understand the comparison, but I also don't think the two match up as directly as they may seem. The key difference for me is how the staging and cinematography of each film deal very differently with a closed-off and forcibly isolated community, and the way this reflects each film's purpose. The world of Dodes'ka-den is wide open and expansive, whereas the almost exclusive set of the flophouse in The Lower Depths was claustrophobic and monotonous. There is a sense, initially, that the lives of the people here are still evolving, with characters and relationships free to come in and out of focus and intersect with each other organically, whereas the older film's characters are stuck exactly where they are—there is no hope they will wind up any different at the end of the film. Kurosawa sees them cynically as they are, literally confined by the film's set to a flophouse where they reenact cruel parodies of their previous lives. The characters in Dodes'ka-den, pitiable as they may be, are afforded the opportunity to move freely, to live in a more broadly defined setting of color and texture, and aren't physically grouped in the same living tomb and observed like animals in a zoo. The limited satire of The Lower Depths here gives way to actual emotional portraits of distinct individuals, and Kurosawa uses all the technical tools at his disposal to differentiate the two approaches.

This doesn't lend Dodes'ka-den a more hopeful tone necessarily, but rather a warmer, more humanistic one. As the audience, we're well aware of the cyclic and inescapable fates of the characters in both films, but in The Lower Depths the characters themselves aren't, and their delusions make them pathetic. In this film they seem to accept the reality of their unfair stations in life, and in a strange twist for Kurosawa, that seems to make all the difference. In this instance, pulling down the curtain of fantasy and the lies they tell themselves would not help these people—it would only strip away the last refuge they have. The excellent scenes in which the homeless man and his son “build their future house” entirely in their minds by describing the gate, porch, and architectural style to each other is elevating in that for them it's a brief escape, however based in fantasy, and most importantly, they seem to implicitly understand that. They know they aren't actually going to go build a grand house on a hill, and we know they know—so in those scenes, we don't look down on them from the outside with unshared knowledge of their delusion, but can instead empathize with their need for said fantasy and appreciate the limited hope it brings them, even as it is ultimately useless.

Kurosawa evokes compassion by showing us how these characters have managed to continue on inside their own lives, and despite the fact that they're still headed toward the same terrible ends as those in the earlier film—the tale of the homeless man and his son may in fact end the most horribly—we see how even such wretched lives can contain moments of brightness. That can be infinitely, cruelly depressing or admirably hopeful, and somehow Kurosawa here allows it to be both.Your comments are so good I want to watch the film a third time to see if I should retract my earlier statement about liking the film less.

This also builds into what I've been feeling watching Kurosawa's films from the start onward instead of the reverse.  I realize that a reverse-chronological order is a weird way to look at someone's body of art, but at the time I wanted to try something different.  It looks like Kurosawa did the same thing here.  The lies that the people of Dodes'ka-den are not the same as those of The Lower Depths or even Rashomon.  They are people who, as you rightly put, willingly give into the illusion that they can be masters of their tiny domain.

Really, they are masters.  The key difference between the cynicism of those earlier films and the more depressing subject matter here is right there in the opening scene.  While the people of The Lower Depths have things shoveled on them, the conductor of Dodes'ka-den at least has things thrown at him.  On some level, the poor and delusional have at least arrived on a playing field that is even in an environment that those who throw the stones would not last even a few days in.

In almost all the other plots the participants are able to keep their near-Technicolor dreams alive by lying to themselves so thoroughly that the reality of their slum almost looks as vibrant as their dreams.  This is wonderfully exemplified in the story the young woman tells of the time she got to be a prostitute.  On the outside it's really depressing, but she flings her hair back and ruffles her clothes around like she's Marilyn Monroe.  This thought process is what helps the story of the homeless man and his young companion resonate the most.

Their story is one of the few treated with cold reality.  Going back to the woman, it's a horrible thing that she had to be a prostitute in order to feel important and pretty.  But that's the lie that she tells to herself and the other women of the village and Kurosawa at least let's them see their trash-pile for all the vibrant hope it could be worth.  Unlike the previous films that deal with people down in the dumps, One Wonderful Sunday included, Kurosawa at least let's his characters have the lie this time.  This isn't an example of having the cake and so forth, but really him willing to acknowledge how the system keeps functioning because of fiction and how much pain would really be flowing around if the truth were ever accepted by all.

It's by no means a positive outlook and definitely adds even more cynicism to his previous films ("We can treat people horribly because they're delusional!")  Kyle, the only complaint I really have now is that too many of the subplots take an extra turn around the bend when one less would be just fine.  I think of the conductor inspecting his train for nearly five minutes when half would be fine, or the man whose eyes speak of death shredding his eighteenth length of silk, or the husbands swapping homes for the third time.  Those could have been left without, but the rest resonates far too well now.

I suppose you accomplished your mission here?  And before you answer, I wouldn't mind watching this film and Kung Fu Hustle back-to-back.  So much of Hustle's own slum, especially with the hard smoking mother, is owed an acknowledgement of the direct homage.The Kung Fu Hustle reference is wonderful—I haven't seen that movie in quite awhile, but in my memory much of it does seem to exemplify the fantasy-as-escape motif in a deliriously amped-up way.

And I agree wholeheartedly about the one-too-many effect. Your example of the boy with the trolly is a good microcosm for the tone of the movie in this regard. Around the mid-point, the film has me in a kind of spell that acts as an extension of the moment in that first scene where we realize the boy going off to “check on the maintenance crew” is not referring to reality. It's a moment that could go many ways, and it could easily go astray in its presentation and become either unintentional mockery or overwrought sentimentality. Instead, Kurosawa uses only the subtle but enormously effective technique of dubbing in sound effects that correspond to whatever the boy is pretending to do. The point is clear immediately: we aren't expected to take the boy's fantasy as some manipulative emotional truth for ourselves, which could again become unintentionally condescending or silly, but we are expected to accept it as a vital emotional truth for him. It makes a stunning and unexpected impression, and lingering too long on the boy's enactment of said fantasy threatens to undermine the strength of this realization.

Likewise, the movie risks lingering too long in the fantasies of the many characters—it works best when it presents sudden moments that forcefully underline an aspect of a person's life, allows us to glimpse them briefly, and then moves along. Another moment that sticks with me is when a man comes to an artist (the only character in the film who seems remotely content in a true sense) asking for help committing suicide. He lost his wife and child many years ago, and noting that he still sees them regularly says he cannot go on living. The artist obliges by giving him some poison, and then raises the question that if the man's family lives on only in his memory, isn't he, by killing himself, also killing them? The man's panicked reaction reveals the true depth of his suffering, and it results in a scene that is emotionally searing but also warm and humorous. We don't need any more—the man's entire story, which speaks profoundly to death and memory, is encapsulated in this moment.

By taking many of the characters' stories on for as long as he does, Kurosawa diminishes some of the effect he builds up, so that by the last half hour or so we start being pulled back out of their lives again. It never undoes the impact of many of the earlier scenes for me, but it does rob the movie of a more cohesive impact in its conclusion. The characters here are caught up in cycles they will never escape from except in their daily moments, which we've both described, and the final sequence of the young boy pulling his imaginary trolly back to its resting place for the night could emphasize that final bittersweet fact much more effectively if the audience wasn't so keenly aware of it by the time it comes. As it is, the scene plays more as an obligatory bookend, followed by a nice touch where the camera lingers on a room in his home covered wall-to-wall in drawings of his trolly, which again for him is very real.

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Next week: Kurosawa ventures outside of Japan to make Dersu Uzala.


Posted by Andrew

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