Akira Kurosawa made Dodes’ka-den (1970) during the most crisis-laden period of his career. He had just spent two years embroiled in an ill-fated venture with the Hollywood studio Twentieth Century Fox to direct the Japanese segments of the World War II epic Tora! Tora! Tora! The relationship with Fox grew bitter and acrimonious over the studio’s perception that Kurosawa was falling way behind schedule and burning money without getting much footage in the can. Believing that Kurosawa was overwhelmed by the strain of the production and mentally ill, the studio fired him from the project. At home, the Japanese film industry was collapsing. Television had stolen the movie audience, and the major studios were slashing their production schedules, shutting down entirely, or fighting to stave off bankruptcy.
Under such circumstances, Kurosawa worried that he might never direct again, so he moved aggressively to make sure that he would. He formed a production company with three of Japan’s other preeminent directors: Masaki Kobayashi (Harakiri), Kon Ichikawa (The Burmese Harp), and Keisuke Kinoshita (Twenty-Four Eyes). They called their company the Club of the Four Knights and hoped that the prestige of their names would attract financing for quality films. Dodes’ka-den was their first and only production.
In making it, Kurosawa practiced a kind of guerrilla filmmaking, working fast and inexpensively. The film was shot in about a month, and this economy was atypical for him (his previous film, 1965’s Red Beard, for example, had been in production nearly two years). In moving so quickly, he found a radical new style and reinvented his work. Dodes’ka-den looks and feels startlingly different from his previous films. It has no central story, being instead a collection of episodes in the lives of a handful of characters living in a slum. The principals include Rokuchan, a simpleminded boy who drives an imaginary trolley; two drunken day laborers, Masuo and Hatsu, and their wives; the kindly Ryo, affectionately tending to his wife’s many children; a beggar and his son, living and starving in the rusted hulk of an automobile; Katsuko, abused by a cruel uncle; Hei, a traumatized man living in solitude; and Tanba, a kind of stately and wise village elder.
Though flush with so many characters, Kurosawa’s narrative has no hero, nor even a protagonist. Instead it weaves together their stories—based on short fictions by Shugoro Yamamoto, a popular writer whose work Kurosawa liked (his earlier films Sanjuro and Red Beard were also based on works of Yamamoto’s)—as a series of anecdotes. Kurosawa did not use any of his big stars, and only a few of his familiar supporting players can be found in the cast. Devotees of his work will spot Kamatari Fujiwara and Atsushi Watanabe, who had small parts in many earlier Kurosawa films; Kunie Tanaka, who appeared in Sanjuro and The Bad Sleep Well; and Yoshitaka Zushi, who had a memorable role in Red Beard and here plays Rokuchan—otherwise, the faces are new.
Kurosawa had closed a major period of his career with Red Beard, a film that had taken the themes and style that he’d been exploring since World War II as far as they could go, and with Dodes’ka-den he was no longer focusing on heroes and inspiring moral tales. He had broken with Toshiro Mifune, the star who had come to personify Kurosawa’s films to the world, and also with his regular composer, Masaru Sato, over the director’s penchant for meddling with Sato’s music and trying to rewrite it. (Kurosawa turned here to the great composer Toru Takemitsu, with whom he would work again on Ran.) Shorn of these key collaborators, and wanting to prove that he could still work, Kurosawa was drawn to these Yamamoto stories because they didn’t require the kind of production values that distinguished his expensive recent work.
Dodes’ka-den was shot for standard-ratio 35 mm rather than for anamorphic widescreen, which Kurosawa had used on all of his films since The Hidden Fortress (1958). As a result, the 1.33:1 frame returns us to the 1940s and early 1950s, when he was using this format regularly. The compositions do not have the expansive coordinates of his widescreen films; they are more intimate, contained, and static. While there’s still a lot of camera movement, Kurosawa now uses zoom lenses for the first time. The opening sequence, for example, showing Rokuchan driving his imaginary trolley, includes some shots taken with a traveling camera, but also some zoom shots that simulate camera movement. The use of zoom lenses in place of camera movement is one sign of the speed and economy with which he made the film.
This was also Kurosawa’s first color production. Indeed, the reason he chose not to work in widescreen was that he didn’t like the way anamorphic lenses handled color information. Spherical lenses provided the kind of sharp, crisp color that he wanted, and Dodes’ka-den is a striking, startling, at times visionary work. Kurosawa had been very slow in coming to color, partly because he didn’t like the existing film stocks. But now he was working for the first time with Takao Saito as his principal cinematographer. Saito had assisted with the filming on High and Low and Red Beard, and Dodes’ka-den marked his emergence as Kurosawa’s cinematographer of choice.
Kurosawa seems to have been energized by this partnership, judging from the film’s splendid color designs. These represent an entirely new aesthetic in his work. Kurosawa was a painter, and when he turned to color in film, he unleashed his painterly style on-screen. As in his painting, Kurosawa’s cinematic color designs are bold, aggressive, and decidedly counter to the kind of social realism that he often aimed for in his black-and-white films. In Dodes’ka-den, the landscape, the costuming, and the faces and hair of the characters are given a stylized chromaticism. To reflect the wretched social setting of the stories and characters, Kurosawa shot most of the film in an open-air dump, where the crew spray painted the ground and constructed odd-looking buildings. In this respect, Kurosawa’s working methods were like those of Antonioni on his first color film, Red Desert (1964).
Kurosawa’s use of color—overtly pictorial and symbolic—shows little fidelity to naturalism. Hei, for example, is a burned-out relic of a man, and his dilapidated shack has the muted tones of a rusted industrial landscape. Hatsu and Masuo and their wives have color-coordinated houses and costumes, Hatsu’s in variations of blue and red, Masuo’s in yellow and green. When in their drunkenness they swap wives and houses, their loss of a coordinated color scheme provokes comic confusion. After the beggar and his son contract food poisoning, Kurosawa visualizes their illness in the intensifying, sickly hues of their faces. Katsuko’s harsh uncle forces her to work long hours making artificial flowers. When he rapes her, she lies across a bed of violently red petals.
Kurosawa also joins scenes together based on a poetics of color. When Katsuko grows weary from making flowers, she collapses onto a pile of blue ones, and Kurosawa cuts to a burglary unfolding in a flood of blue moonlight. And he shot several scenes on indoor sets, against painted cycloramas that thrust the artifice of his painterly style directly at the viewer. This is the first time that colored cycloramas appear in his work, and he grew fond of them, using them again in Kagemusha, Dreams, Rhapsody in August, and his final film, Madadayo.
Dodes’ka-den reflects Kurosawa’s abiding concern for Japan’s poor and for those left out of the nation’s great economic boom. Many of his films dramatized the poverty, alienation, and misery of those cast out of the social mainstream—Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, High and Low, Red Beard. But only in The Lower Depths and Dodes’ka-den did Kurosawa focus exclusively on such characters, and in each film he conjoined abject misery with surprising humor. Dodes’ka-den has many comic ingredients and a lightness of touch that is startling amid its portrait of so much suffering. There are the bumbling, wife-swapping Hatsu and Masuo; Mr. Shima (Junzaburo Ban, in a brilliant performance), who has a nervous tic played as slapstick comedy; and the wise Mr. Tanba, who brings a Zen master’s sense of the absurd to life’s sudden crises.
Kurosawa had long been interested in the way that dreams and fantasies can ease the burdens of life, and Dodes’ka-den’s episodic portraits of slum life provide many examples. The brightly colored children’s drawings that cover the walls of Rokuchan’s home mirror the vitality of his dream world, in which he conducts his imaginary trolley, and contrast with the sad world that he really inhabits. In an early scene, Rokuchan looks at a real trolley passing by. We see it as a reflection in his window. In the film, the nation existing beyond this slum—a realm of affluence and material abundance—is equally distant, like a mirage floating beyond reach, impossible to grasp. The denizens of this colorful slum know it’s there, but they cannot walk its paths apart from their dreams. Kurosawa shows us the cast-off effluvium of modernism, an industrial wasteland, polluted, decaying, one that destroys the lives of those caught in it, and yet he also shows the persistence of the human spirit.
His characters aim to transcend their appalling circumstances not just with dreams and humor but also sometimes through simple, stubborn denial of what surrounds them. Rokuchan’s imaginary trolley (his verbal imitation of which became the film’s title) connects him to a more pleasing and compelling reality than his own. Kurosawa sympathizes and identifies with Rokuchan, who, like a film director, is a purveyor of dreams; it’s no coincidence that schoolchildren call Rokuchan crazy, just as Twentieth Century Fox had Kurosawa. Meanwhile, the beggar and his son pass their time by fantasizing of living in beautiful and sometimes garish houses, presented by Kurosawa as surreal and hyperchromatic visions. But these hopes of transcendence lead to tragedy for them. Similarly, Hei, lost in a dimly remembered past whose traumatic imagery he cannot shake, also comes to embody the dark side of dreaming. Sometimes, Kurosawa shows, fantasy can lead to pathology.
While making Dodes’ka-den, Kurosawa, like his characters, struggled to surmount a time of great personal difficulties. These would lead him to an attempt on his own life in the year following the film’s release and box-office failure. But he recovered and would continue to make films. And Dodes’ka-den—with its bold and symbolic color designs, which would henceforth be integral to his work—was proof that he had opened a striking new chapter in an already extraordinary career.
Stephen Prince is the author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa.