By Daniel Barnes
Made in 1970 during a period of intense personal and professional turmoil, the ramshackle Dodes’ka-Den is a strange anomaly in the Kurosawa filmography. It was his long-awaited return to filmmaking after a string of high-profile projects withered on the vine, and also his first film shot in color. The sense of release is evident from the opening shots, as Kurosawa splashes colors across the screen like an action painter working off a fistful of Bennies.
As I stated in the festival intro, few directors of the last century possessed as refined and self-aware a sense of visual impact as Akira Kurosawa, so his switch from black and white to color could not possibly be a mere aesthetic whim. The kaleidoscopic vibrancy of the color palette in Dodes’ka-Den serves far more of a narrative and thematic purpose than if Kurosawa had merely made his color debut directing the Japanese half of Tora! Tora! fucking Tora!.
Dodes’ka-Den is a neighborhood ensemble piece literally set in a junkyard, offering an absurd and theatrical vision of abject poverty and post-Hiroshima despair. These people are not dreamers, they are hallucinating, and the film’s Skittle-like color scheme reflects the intensity of their fantasies in contrast to the unimaginable squalor of their lives. The gigantic junkyard set where most of the film takes place is alternately rendered with verisimilitudinous detail and soundstage claustrophobia, as though the movie were slipping in and out of a klieg light delirium.
It begins as a series of disconnected episodes – a damaged young boy believes he runs the streetcar that traverses the junkyard, while the other children throw rocks at him; a pair of color-coded drinking buddies swap color-coded wives and houses; a homeless man builds a mansion in his mind while his son begs for restaurant kitchen scraps (the brief portrayal of a “real world” outside the junkyard only adds an extra layer of cruelty to their destitution) – but slowly a sense of community emerges. The gossip circle of washer women aren’t morally opposed to husband swapping, they just wish the couples weren’t so “open about it.”
At the center of the community is a wise, older man with a uniquely calming effect on the entire populace, from hardened criminals to violent drunks to the resolutely suicidal. His challenge is not so much to dispel their delusions, but to make them more humane and livable. As an adoring father tells the children that his floozy wife probably sired with other men, “If you believe someone is your Dad, then you are his son. Believe me, or believe them.” Between the fantasy and the truth, they all choose to believe the fantasy.
Unfortunately, the film starts dragging in the second half, as you can feel Kurosawa straining to make a “big statement” about postwar Japan and survivor’s guilt. All of the colorful characters are frontloaded to the first half (the boy who “operates” the streetcar goes missing for nearly an hour), and too much time is spent on a storyline about an ashen-faced mute “with the eyes of a dead man,” and a younger woman desperate to make amends.
You get a sense throughout that Kurosawa is exorcising personal, cultural and artistic demons while still trying to maintain his obligations as a born cinematic storyteller and emotional manipulator. The two impulses don’t necessarily gel, and if anything, you keep wishing that Kurosawa had indulged his own delusions a little more liberally. Dodes’ka-Den was a box office bomb in Japan, and Kurosawa went into a deep personal funk, emerging out the other end as a worldwide master of epic landscape cinema. There is nothing else quite like the trash-strewn snow globe of Dodes’ka-Den in his reel, so while it’s a compelling and insanely colorful shaggy dog, it also reeks of unexplored alleyways and undiscovered corners.