Part two of my review/love letter to Akira Kurosawa’s Dodesu’ka-den.
Where was I? Oh, yeah. Tora! Tora! Tora! didn’t work out for Kurosawa at all, the film industry was undergoing some extreme changes in Japan, and there was now a rumor going around that the once brilliant director had lost his mind.
Kurosawa teamed up with 3 other super famous, old school Japanese directors to make the film. They even established their own production company, The Club of the Four Knights, with their goal being to revive the film industry in Japan. Their efforts failed miserably, as Dodesu’ka-den was the one and only film they ever put out. Although it was received fairly well overseas, it tanked in Japan, sending Kurosawa into a terrible depression.
The movie does have its quirks, to be sure. Very few of Kurosawa’s usual cast members made an appearance, it was his first attempt at an all color film (he was no stranger to using color in his black and whites though (he paid a great deal of attention to the color he painted the flowers in the iconic stream scene in Sanjuro and there’s a scene in High and Low where he features reddish pink smoke)), and it comes across as very low budget. In fact, Kurosawa with Dodesu’ka-den, Kurosawa wanted to show younger filmmakers that you don’t need a huge budget to make a film. That, combined with his intense work ethic, meant that he completed the film in just 28 days.
So, if you’re thinking about getting into Kurosawa’s movies, some people might say you shouldn’t start with this one. The meat is good but it’s pretty rough around the edges. However, I say it’s a pretty solid intro to Kurosawa. The man can get super deep and heady, like in Ran and Throne of Blood, both epics based on Shakespearean plays. Other times though, he meets the people where they are, like in One Wonderful Sunday or Ikiru.
Dodesu’ka-den is a story about a bunch of people living in a slum outside of Tokyo, just struggling to get by. You see them revel in their highs and drown in their lows. A son and a father living in an abandoned car make plans to build their ultimate dream house, going over every detail till they’ve got it perfect while they’re living off of beggared scraps. An old man allows people to steal from him and even gives them lessons in how to do their job better, and the thieves are subsequently forced to think about what they’re doing. A girl is used, abused, and finally raped by her lazy, alcoholic uncle and takes out her frustration on the boy who loves her by stabbing him. Later, he’s not even mad, he’s just concerned about the girl. And then there’s the mentally disabled boy who connects everyone throughout the slums by driving an imaginary trolley all over the neighborhood screaming out the film’s title, “Dodesu’ka-den! Dodesu’ka-den!”
The film did for me what all great films should do in that it made me question and resonate with what it means to be human. Even though these people live in the garbage, even though their circumstances are garbage, are they as people garbage? If they’re not, am I? Sitting here, writing on an expensive laptop on a mountain far above the city, where I can’t see the scum? How do we decide who is worthless, or is that just a decision that gets made for certain people, regardless of what they have to say about it? Is it possible to feel like a king, when really you’re a worm? And why do so many worms wear crowns?
In the same year that Dodesu’ka-den was released (1970), Kurosawa attempted suicide. I don’t know what ate at him more, his new reputation as a crazy person, his perpetuating failures as a filmmaker, or this sense, that you really feel in Dodesu’ka-den, that your reality can never measure up to your dreams. Luckily, for us all, Kurosawa’s suicide attempt was yet another failure, the best kind of failure. He went on to direct Ran, Kagemusha, and Dreams, among other films.
Kurosawa’s body of work is extensive and it will take you some time to make it through all of his films, but I strongly encourage you to do so. He started out as an artist, and that’s what he was at his core throughout his career. In Dodesu’ka-den, you really see him at his finest in my opinion, just doing what he did best. Creating, dreaming, working desperately to see his dreams come true; the man famously stated that he wanted nothing more than to die while shooting one of his movies. That didn’t happen for him, but he poured his soul into his creations nonetheless. It’s an energy, a philosophy, that I feel is lacking in film these days. That drive to do the impossible, to take shit and make it beautiful, to take a human being and make him more than flesh and fat and blood. Kurosawa made what was real a dream and churned dreams into reality.
Day 31, done. 115 days to go.