Dodes 'Ka-Den Review

The Film

Dodes 'Ka-Den is a colourful film filled with misery. Having conquered the world with his black and white jidai-geki, the movement into colour must have loomed large for Kurosawa as he endured the trials and disappointments of the five years that followed his last film with Mifune, Red Beard. Rumours of all kinds surrounded his being fired from Tora, Tora, Tora, and his intended first project in America didn't survive battles with the producers. Additionally, the Japanese new wave brought unfavourable comparisons and the accusation that the director was too foreign-oriented in his perspective.
His next film was therefore a movie that would need to be innovative, unafraid of the new palate and made on time and to budget. And it was, the sheer excess of colour, the broad and disparate narrative of a whole host of characters, and made within schedule and financial limits. He did though deliver a piece that lasted four hours and it was heavily cut on release. Approaching the shortened film, it's tempting to see it as an updating of The Lower Depths or a rediscovery of the ideas which inspired his work directly after the war.

Yet what really strikes me when watching the film is how wretched his world seems. How the odd moments of comic effect jar with impossibly dark events, how a child can die one second and a cheery ensemble scene succeeds this as a sequence – perhaps a legacy of the film being butchered by distributors. It is possible to suggest the scenes of incest, starvation and complete social collapse did need to be lightened with humour, but it seems clear that the director was more at home with a tone of despair than one of relief.
In Something Like an Autobiography, Kurosawa writes of a memory as a child of walking through devastation and rubble. This image seems to inspire him as late as the post-holocaust sequence in Dreams all the way back to Drunken Angel's urban swamp of corruption. In Dodes 'Ka-Den, it seems that the whole film is lost in this ruined netherworld where love is inconstant, wisdom is lost and deprivation leads to death.

The director tries to sugar the pill, to suggest that the lives of his afflicted may not be so bad if they are allowed to dream and to laugh, but his characters seem are already ghosts of their former selves. Some of the comedy is a little mean spirited and damning - the two couples who interchange partners only remember which bed they are meant to sleep in because they are colour coded.
Most worrying is the figure of the Sensei, whose role throughout Kurosawa's best films is a hallmark of his work. Instead of a kindly Takashi Shimura who encourages the new generation to apply themselves to making a better world, we get a weaker version whose interventions sometimes work to mitigate the disasters around him but are impotent next to the extent of the problems of this slum.

Despite the visual impact of the film and the success in making it on time, Kurosawa would find financing projects in his native Japan impossible in the coming years. The response to his film added to his despair and it was six years later before the Russian financed Dersu Uzala. It would be intriguing to imagine what the director's full film would have looked like, but even in its cut form it is hard to deny the amazing artistry and the terribly dark soul behind it.

Dodes 'Ka-Den is a brave film that nearly destroyed it's creator.

Transfer and Sound

Previously this film received a flipper release from Mei Ah with impossible subtitles, and comparing that to this Criterion release is revelatory. The transfer is window-boxed as per Criterion standard practice and presented in 4:3, but it is a marvel of rich deep colours and well graded contrast. Detail is precise and there is a little obvious edge enhancement. The faded discoloured Mei Ah disc can be safely discarded.
Restoration has been applied to the audio which lacks some definition and clarity but is now much cleaner and easier to enjoy than previous releases. The new subtitles are optional and with a clear white type supported by good grammar.

Discs and Special Features

This is a region locked dual layer disc which comes with a 26 page booklet featuring a piece by Stephen Prince, author of The Emperor and the Wolf, and an interview with assistant director Teruyo Nogami. On the actual disc there is a trailer which sells the film as some kind of light comedy from a great master which must have contributed to the film's poor reception when the audience did come to see it. There is also another episode of the series It is wonderful to create which focuses on the film and the troubles that followed the completion of Red Beard. Surviving cast and crew contribute and the tone is very reverential, no time is given over to the film's very poor reception.

More information on the reception of the film is included in the booklet and Nogami frankly admits that he thought Kurosawa was "recuperating" whilst making the film. Nogami also mentions the questioning that the director received from prying journalists around his suicide attempt in what turns out to be a good and frank interview. Prince's appreciation of the film and the changes Kurosawa made to his technique and collaborators is similarly welcome, and his concentration on the partnership between Takao Saito and the director proves interesting as he discusses the experimental use of colour here. The booklet also includes information on chapter stops, the transfer and the cast and uses stills from the film as artwork along the director's painting on the front cover.


A very fine video treatment and a good clean-up of the audio along with expected Criterion extras make this an essential purchase for lovers of the director. Others may find it far too bleak to enjoy casually.

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Last updated: 18/04/2018 20:15:36

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