Episodes from the lives of a group of Tokyo slum-dwellers: Rokkuchan, an intellectually disabled boy who brings meaning and routine to his life by driving an imaginary streetcar; children who support their parents by scrounging or by tedious and ill-paying endeavours; schemers who plot or dream of escaping the shackles of poverty.Written by
Jim Beaver <email@example.com>
obscure and underrated; it's another of Kurosawa's dramas on the lower class, this time bleaker, a little more abstract, still a masterpiece
If there was anything Akira Kurosawa did wrong in making Dodes'ka-den, it was making it with the partnership he formed with the "four knights" (the other three being Kobayaski, Ichikawa, and Konishita). They wanted a big blockbuster hit to kick off their partnership, and instead Kurosawa, arguably the head cheese of the group, delivered an abstract, humanist art film with characters living in a decimated slum that had many of its characters face dark tragedies. Had he made it on a more independent basis or went to another studio who knows, but it was because of this, among some other financial and creative woes, that also contributed to his suicide attempt in 1971. And yet, at the end of the day, as an artist Kurosawa didn't stop delivering what he's infamous for with his dramas: the strengths of the human spirit in the face of adversity. That its backdrop is a little more unusual than most shouldn't be ignored, but it's not at all a fault of Kurosawa's.
The material in Dodes'ka-den is absorbing, but not in ways that one usually finds from the director, and mostly because it is driven by character instead of plot. There's things that happen to these people, and Kurosawa's challenge here is to interweave them into a cohesive whole. The character who starts off in the picture, oddly enough (though thankfully as there's not much room for him to grow), is Rokkuchan, a brain damaged man-child who goes around all day making train sounds (the 'clickety-clack' of the title), only sometimes stopping to pray for his mother. But then we branch off: there's the father and son, the latter who scrounges restaurants for food and the former who goes on and on with site-specific descriptions of his dream house; an older man has the look of death to him, and we learn later on he's lost a lot more than he'll tell most people, including a woman who has a past with him; a shy, quiet woman who works in servitude to her adoptive father (or uncle, I'm not sure), who rapes her; and a meek guy in a suit who has a constant facial tick and a big mean wife- to those who are social around.
There are also little markers of people around these characters, like two drunks who keep stumbling around every night, like clockwork, putting big demands on their spouses, sometimes (unintentionally) swapping them! And there's the kind sake salesman on the bike who has a sweet but strange connection with the shy quiet woman. And of course there's a group of gossiping ladies who squat around a watering hole in the middle of the slum, not having anything too nice to say about anyone unless it's about something erotic with a guy. First to note with all of this is how Kurosawa sets the picture; it's a little post-apocalyptic, looking not of any particular time or place (that is until in a couple of shots we see modern cars and streets). It's a marginalized society, but the concerns of these people are, however in tragic scope, meant to be deconstructed through dramatic force. Like Bergman, Kurosawa is out to dissect the shattered emotions of people, with one scene in particular when the deathly-looking man who has hollow, sorrowful eyes, sits ripping cloth in silence as a woman goes along with it.
Sometimes there's charm, and even some laughs, to be had with these people. I even enjoyed, maybe ironically, the little moments with Rokkuchan (specifically with Kurosawa's cameo as a painter in the street), or the awkward silences with the man with the facial tics. But while Kurosawa allows his actors some room to improvise, his camera movements still remain as they've always been- patient but alert, with wide compositions and claustrophobic shots, painterly visions and faces sometimes with the stylization of a silent drama meant as a weeper. Amid these sometimes bizarre and touching stories, with some of them (i.e. the father and son in the car) especially sad, Kurosawa lights his film and designs the color scheme as his first one in Eastmancolor like it's one of his paintings. Lush, sprawling, spilling at times over the seams but always with some control, this place is not necessarily "lighter"; it's like the abstract has come full-throttle into the scene, where things look vibrant but are much darker underneath. It's a brilliant, tricky double-edged sword that allows for the dream-like intonations with such heavy duty drama.
With a sweet 'movie' score Toru Takemitsu (also responsible for Ran), and some excellent performances from the actors, and a few indelible scenes in a whole fantastic career, Dodes'ka-den is in its own way a minor work from the director, but nonetheless near perfect on its own terms, which as with many Kurosawa dramas like Ikiru and Red Beard holds hard truths on the human condition without too much sentimentality.
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