Dodes’ka-den is one of those films arguably more interesting for the events which surround it rather than those which unfold onscreen. That’s not to say that it’s a particularly bad, merely weak. But when you’re a filmmaker such as Akira Kurosawa, with a string of classics and masterpieces to your name, being a weak entry in the filmography can be a fairly unforgiving situation. Dodes’ka-den should have been a triumph - marking as it did its maker’s return to filmmaking in Japan following a wholly unsuccessful series of experiences in the United States during the latter half of the 1960s - yet the reality is that it’s ultimately fairly minor. Those years in the US revolved around two particular projects: the escaped convicts action-thriller Runaway Train (eventually filmed in partially re-written form in 1985 by Andrei Konchalovsky) and the Japanese sections of Fox’s Pearl Harbour epic, Tora! Tora! Tora! (eventually handled by Kenji Fukasaku and Toshio Masuda). By way of contrast Dodes’ka-den is a low-key affair, a series of vignettes set against the present day slums of Tokyo. There are no central characters, but rather an ensemble of various outcasts, misfits, drop-outs and dreamers.
Such a description could easily apply to The Lower Depths, Kurosawa’s Maxim Gorky adaptation from 1957. Dodes’ka-den takes its narrative from a collection of short stories by the Japanese author Shugoro Yamamoto, but nevertheless retains that theatrical edge of the earlier film. The sets (despite, in part, being filmed on a genuine dump) are few, the characters have a tendency to either talk in monologues or confront each other in highly choreographed encounters, and Kurosawa returns to the boxier Academy ratio (tellingly for the first time since The Lower Depths) following such widescreen epics as The Hidden Fortress and the two Yojimbo movies. Dodes’ka-den also marked Kurosawa’s first use of colour, which he applies in occasional splashes of near-psychedelic explosions that only serve to introduce an element of heightened artificiality.
Yet whereas The Lower Depths - which is, I feel, itself a comparatively minor work for its director - had its fidelity to Gorky providing a strong dramatic core, Dodes’ka-den lacks any kind of genuine unifying structure. Its characters - a collection of drunks, bums, cripples and eccentrics - all feel isolated from one another and this lack of connection extends to the audience too. It could be argued that this isolation makes perfect sense given their circumstances: each seems to have a painful backstory and equally painful current realities so who can blame them for drifting off into their own individual, delusional existences? However, it also comes accompanied by a wildly shifting tone ranger from those who are broadly comic in their characterisation to those who exist solely to provide some full-on drama; others are also present purely as a mouthpiece, delivering long, cynical declarations on Japanese culture, its sense of identity and sense of history. With regards to the latter it’s hard not to imagine that Kurosawa viewed his film as some kind of ‘state of the nation’ address.
Unfortunately for the director, the nation weren’t particularly interested in listening and so Dodes’ka-den proved itself a massive failure at the box office. It did subsequently pick up an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language Film, though it’s hard not to feel, especially in this category, that such Oscar nods are somewhat arbitrary, tokenistic and rarely a true signifier of quality. The lack of success meant Kurosawa didn’t make another film for five years, the part-Soviet-financed Dersu Uzala, a return to his celebrated epic brand of filmmaking courtesy of 70mm ’scope photography and the life of Russian explorer Vladimir Arsenyev to bring to the screen. (Another Oscar nod emerged, this time resulting in a win.) It also meant that the production company behind Dodes’ka-den, Yonki-No-Kai, was effectively killed off by its first film. Set up by Kurosawa and fellow filmmakers Kon Ichikawa, Keisuke Kinoshita and Masaki Koboyashi, the idea behind Yonki-No-Kai was to provide a base for director-led filmmaking in a national cinema that was growing increasingly dependant on genre and formula for box office appeal. Sadly it was never to be, and the company name appeared on only one more film, Koboyashi’s Kaseki (The Fossil) from 1974. The fallout of both the failure of Dodes’ka-den and Yonki-No-Kai likely contributed to Kurosawa’s failed suicide attempt in late 1972.
And so it is that such events prove themselves far more interesting and intriguing than anything the film itself has to offer. In its defence the colour photography is wonderful and perhaps even all the more impressive given that Kurosawa stuck firmly to black and white for so long. (The first colour Japanese production was Kinoshita’s 1951 comedy Carmen Comes Home.) The occasional psychedelic properties really do stand out and are nicely complemented by a free-wheeling blissed out score from Toru Takemitsu that wouldn’t seem out of place in a slightly rebellious US flick of the same period (it combines guitar, vibes and harmonica to a very pleasant, laid back effect). The performances are mostly solid despite the broad characterisations, though arguably there isn’t really a standout amongst the cast, just as there are arguably no truly standout scenes either. (Everyone remembers the young boy with mental deficiencies, however, who spends his days riding and inspecting invisible trams; the title, incidentally, is an onomatopoeic rendering of the noise his tram makes.) As such Dodes’ka-den is a hard film to recommend with proper enthusiasm and perhaps one that is best, as we find here, included in a Kurosawa boxed-set as opposed to justifying its own standalone release.
As with The Lower Depths (reviewed here), Dodes’ka-den is making its UK DVD debut as an exclusive inclusion in the BFI’s recently released Kurosawa Classic Collection boxed set. As well as the 1957 feature it also sits alongside re-packaged discs of Ikiru, I Live in Fear and Red Beard. (Click the titles for individual reviews.)
Given the events which surround Dodes’ka-den’s making, it’s a shame to find the disc itself devoid of contextualising extras. The ‘making of’ documentary that found a place on the Region 1 Criterion Collection edition is nowhere to be found; in its place we get a three-page essay by James Bell included in the accompanying booklet which, in all fairness, does provide plenty of background information amongst its appreciation. With that said, it is hard to fault Dodes’ka-den’s presentation. Utilising materials supplied by Toho, it seems very likely that this is the same master that was used for Criterion’s 2009 release. Damage is at an absolute minimum (the odd spec may appear, nothing more untoward than that) and the colours really do look fantastic, ably capturing the mix of muted tones that are occasionally sparked by brighter introductions. Contrast levels are similarly impressive as is the general level of detail throughout. The original aspect ratio is, of course, preserved, whilst the English subtitles are optional. The mono soundtrack, presented in DD2.0, is as crisp and clear as the image and contains nothing to find genuine fault with.