When it comes to Akira Kurosawa I have either seen or own all of his name titles including Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Ikiru, Throne of Blood, Yojimbo, Sanjuro and Ran. I have Kagemusha sitting on my coffee table ready to be viewed for the first time and outside of a few noticeable omissions I am finally ready to venture into his lesser known titles and with Criterion's latest release of Dodes'ka-den I can't think of a better place to start. This isn't to say Dodes'ka-den is any kind of masterpiece, because it's not, but the instances surrounding Dodes'ka-den and how it came to be are utterly fascinating and opened up a side of Kurosawa I had never known.
Serving as Kurosawa's first attempt at a color film, Dodes'ka-den also marked his first feature in five years following Red Beard in 1965. In those five years Kurosawa would put in work on The Runaway Train which was eventually abandoned only to be made into a feature film starring Jon Voight in 1985. He would also dedicate much of his time to the Japanese portion of Tora! Tora! Tora! only to be dismissed from the massive project with Fox saying he was spending too much money and suffering from mental illness. Despite all of his earlier success Kurosawa found himself under a microscope and needed to prove the naysayers wrong and prove he could still come to the table with a great film, under budget and on time. Dodes'ka-den was his answer, and the intrigue doesn't stop there.
Dodes'ka-den began shooting on a 44-day shooting schedule and was finished in only 28 days. However, no matter how the film is considered now, it went on to be a box-office failure and only one year later Kurosawa attempted suicide. The wounds were obviously not fatal as he went on making films until 1993 including his next film, Dersu Uzala, which went on to win the Foreign Language Oscar in 1976. Knowing all of this I am not sure how you cannot be interested in this seminal entry in Kurosawa's career.
The story is best described as a slice-of-life tale taking place in the slums outside of Tokyo. The title of the film comes from a mentally ill boy referred to by the shantytown villagers as the "Trolley Freak" as every morning he wakes up and services and operates his imaginary trolley from sunset to sundown, all while uttering the words "dodes'ka-den" (clickety-clack) on his travels, mocking the sounds of a real trolley. Over the film's 140 minute running time you meet an eclectic group of characters from local women washing clothes and gossiping all day long, a beggar and his son, a unique married quartet and a host of others that make up a film made during what I am sure many would argue to be Kurosawa's most difficult time as a filmmaker.
The film itself is not perfect, but it has plenty of moments that spring up at just the right times. The beggar and his son are an interesting pair, the wife swapping couples provide plenty of entertainment and I think the one thing any viewer would come away from this film loving is the performance of Junzaburo Ban as Yukichi, a businessman suffering from an involuntary tic. While there is never a moment you are entirely bored with this film, Ban's performance comes out of nowhere and rises well above the rest as he confronts a colleague who disrespects his wife.
This Criterion DVD release is one for the true film lover and especially any fan of Kurosawa that doesn't simply like the director because it is cool to say you think Seven Samurai is a great film. The special features on this disc are limited to a theatrical trailer and 36-minute documentary called "Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create" which comes as part of the "Toho Masterworks" series from 2003, but that is all I needed to become enthralled with the stories surrounding this one film that appears to stand at the center of Kurosawa's personal career.
Taking part in the documentary are several of Kurosawa's filmmaking partners including producers, actors, production designers and cinematographer Takao Saito, but the one I keyed in on was Teruyo Nogami. Nogami served as Kurosawa's script supervisor on Dodes'ka-den as well as several Kurosawa features beginning with Rashomon in 1950 and was associate director on Dersu Uzala in 1975. Nogami is included in the interviews but also contributes a Q&A in the accompanying 24-page booklet. Her comments and commentary inspired me to purchase her book "Waiting on the Weather: Making Movies with Akira Kurosawa" as a start to learn even more.
As I said, Dodes'ka-den is not a perfect film, and I would probably classify it as experimental as Kurosawa wasn't working with his regular actors and was working with color for the first time, so much to the point you learn they even painted shadows on the ground (something I need to go back and look for). However, this film opens a door into the life of Kurosawa and will allow for those interested to find a central point to work from. As the circle expands you will open your eyes to some of the greatest films ever made from unquestionably one of cinema's greatest directors. If for no other reason than opening your eyes to this fact, you owe to yourself to at least watch this movie and its accompanying documentary. I won't say you should buy it, because I'm not even sure how many times I will watch it again, but it is definitely something you should check out if film history is something interesting to you, even in the slightest.