A Month of Kurosawa: Dodes’ka-Den (1970)

To celebrate the upcoming release of my book, Akira Kurosawa: A Viewer’s Guide, due out Dec. 15 from Rowman & Littlefield — preorder here! — I’ll be doing capsule reviews all month covering every single Kurosawa film and posting (very) brief excerpts. These will be short impressions and recommendations, nothing more. For a full, detailed analysis of each, grab the book!

Dodes’ka-Den (1970)

By the late 1960s, Akira Kurosawa’s career had somewhat skidded off the rails. The situation is too complex with these quickie capsule reviews, but the bottom line is that Toshiro Mifune was out of the picture, Kurosawa was increasingly seen as behind the times, and the director struggled to get funding for his films.

That’s the situation in which he made Dodes’ka-Den, his first color film and a bleak portrayal of poverty in Japan.

Much like his previous work, Red Beard, this picture presents a series of vignettes rather than a single focused narrative. It has a large cast of eclectic characters, each struggling and suffering in their own way, and doesn’t really drive towards any specific goal or end. Instead, it’s just a series of glimpses into their difficult lives. A father and son imagining a better life. A young woman forced to labor under an abusive uncle. Two drunks who routinely swap wives. A (possibly autistic) boy who lives in a world of fantasy. And many others. From the book:

Much like in The Lower Depths, these are tales of human frailty; of the need for connection with others; of suffering; of small joys and triumphs; of loss; and of being stuck in a cycle of existence that is terribly difficult, if not impossible, to break. Each tale weaves its way through comedy and tragedy; joy and heartbreak; pleasure and pain. Roger Ebert noted that they all “seem doomed to learn little, to repeat their mistakes, to be trapped by the system that relegated them to the trash heap in the first place.”

This is a film widely considered a failure for Kurosawa, though that’s a sentiment I disagree with. His use of color is vivid and beautiful. The tiny stories he tells are heartbreaking and real. And the masterful way in which he paints the lives of these varied people shows that he still had a talent for getting inside what makes us tick. It doesn’t rank among his best, no, but there is a lot to like here.

From the book:

The film is unfocused and lacking in a clear narrative drive, yes, and it often fails to be as gripping as his best work, but as a series of interwoven character sketches it’s a beautiful experiment in color and character and style, and one that emphasizes a focus on highlighting the lives of the unfortunate and downtrodden that had been a hallmark of Akira Kurosawa’s work from the very beginning.

So for me, I say disregard critical consensus and consider giving this one a look. If you are a fan of Kurosawa when he explores the lives of the downtrodden, you’ll find a lot to enjoy here.

Check out my upcoming book for a full analysis exploring this film’s ideas, themes, good points, and bad

You can get the movie in excellent edition by the Criterion Collection.


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