March 12, 2009

Dodesukaden

1970 film
directed by Akira Kurosawa
written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni
based on the novel CITY WITHOUT SEASONS by Shugoro Yamamoto

The years after RED BEARD were a trying time for Kurosawa. Not only had the production ended his relationship with Toshiro Mifune, but the release was followed by claims among critics and peers that Kurosawa was old-fashioned. Prospects seemed brighter in America where his movies were garnering much attention, but his first U.S. film, RUNAWAY TRAIN, never got off the ground, and fears about his perfectionism got him fired from TORA! TORA! TORA! just as it was gearing into production.

No, it wasn't a good time in Kurosawa's life. But a light seemed to show at the end of the tunnel when three of his fellow top filmmakers - Keisuke Kinoshita, Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa - decided to form a joint production company with Kurosawa where they would pool their popularity and influence to foster one another's projects to fruition. Their first effort? Kurosawa's DODESUKADEN.

Spread amongst the rubble of a junkyard, a group of people live in rundown huts, gutted cars, or whatever they can cover themselves with for the night. A teenage girl toils night and day to support her drunk, lecherous uncle while her aunt is hospitalized for an operation. A man stumbles through life with dead eyes, eyes that refuse to flare to life even when his estranged wife comes to confront him. A pair of laborers get so plastered each night they either don't notice or don't care that they keep swapping wives. A handicapped businessman constantly comes to the defense of his brutish wife, because she's the only person who truly cares for him. A beggar openly dreams to his placating son about the modern mansion in which they'll one day live. An old man is willing to give anything he owns to help others, as long as they leave him his tools so he can maintain his living. This is all introduced to us through a mentally handicapped teenager, making the rounds in his imaginary trolley car (DODESUKADEN is the clickety-clack sound it makes passing over the rails), and is frequently commented upon by a Greek chorus of wives who gather each day at the one faucet of water at the center of their little village.

Visually, this is a striking, stunning film. Not only is the composition right up there with Kurosawa's finest, but for his first film with color, the director seems to have had a wet dream explosion of pastels, heaping one layer of vibrant brilliance upon another in images that fully soak into a viewer's eye. The dream house on a hill. Poisoned faces. Stacks of plastic bins. Back-lit collections of children's illustrations on paper walls. It's breathtaking.

The stories themselves are a mixed bag. The teenage girl, the dead-eyed man, and the father and son beggars are the only solid, developing narratives, while the rest are more just a collection of incidents and funny ideas. Now, none of them were bad, there just wasn't any cohesion to the material. I think this film is most comparable to Kurosawa's earlier THE LOWER DEPTHS, which was also about the dreams and dashed hopes of people crammed into squalor, but while that was about how they related to one another and eventually united in a joint effort, everyone in DODESUKADEN pretty much keeps to themselves and their own stories, which somehow made the whole picture, in spite of the strength of some tales, feel hollow.

And I guess I wasn't the only one who thought so because the film was both a critical and financial failure, breaking up the joint production company before they could get another feature off the ground and sending Kurosawa into such a deep depression, he just barely failed at killing himself. Another stretch of years would go by before he directed again.

Now, is the film deserving of such an extreme legacy? No. It's uneven and lacks a central focus, but still captivates with original stories and solid performances. And the use of color, the mesmerizing, awe-inspiring images Kurosawa makes with his new toy, alone warrants study and respect.

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3 comments:

jekkvalle said...

This is the first and only (so far!) Kurosawa film I've seen and I ADORED it. Maybe it's because I haven't seen his other movies so I can't really compare, but my goodness, this film gave me one of the best emotional experiences I have had in a movie theatre. It made me laugh and cry. It shocked and disturbed and angered me. It made me worry and it kept me intrigued throughout the entire time.

I understand what you were saying about the film having no cohesion because the narratives never really intertwined, but I just saw it as vignettes. And i argue that they do relate to one another thematically and it's through the way they all struggle and cope with poverty - alcoholism, creating unattainable dreams, indiscretions and abuse, just to name a few.

I am officially a Kurosawa fan and I'm so excited to see Throne of Blood next week.

NoelCT said...

Thanks for the feedback, jekkvalle, and welcome to the works of Kurosawa.

Yeah, DODESUKADEN is one that really divides people between those who appreciate the looser vignette structure and those thrown off by it. I do agree that it's a genuinely beautiful, moving, and challenging film, but it just didn't fully click with me. I don't know that it was specifically the structure. Could've been that so many stories were being told that I felt some were never fully explored.

But I could very well be wrong. This review was from my very first viewing of the film, as are most of my Kurosawa reviews. It's definitely a film I plan to explore again down the road. We'll see where I am then.

Best of luck with THRONE OF BLOOD and any Kurosawa films you watch in the future. While occasionally a bit frustrating, they never disappoint. And I'd recommend THE LOWER DEPTHS, which is a somewhat different take on a lot of the themes found in DODESUKADEN.

jekkvalle said...

Yeah, try to see it again I'm sure it will be a different experience. I find that this happens to me a lot. With classic films, I like to re-watch them a few years after my initial viewing and I either like it more or like it less.

Thanks for you recommendations, I'm going to add The Lower Depths on my 'to see' list.