In the second scene of the Kurosawa’s 1970 film Dodeskaden, we see a young man arriving at his job. There is nothing real about this job to the viewer but, for the young man, it is all very real. He is a trolley driver in his mind, and he arrives at ‘the garage’ as the script has it, which “does not exist objectively, but is a very real entity, subjectively … and inside this garage there is, most certainly, a subjective trolley car.” As he inspects his imaginary trolley car, walking around it, kicking it, checking the couplings on the engine, the script tells us, “During the inspection, the viewer begins to feel that the trolley car really exists.”
This is Rokuchan, the “trolley fool,” a village idiot who seems at times to emerge from out of the tradition of Dostoyevsky’s novels. Everyone around him thinks that he is insane; he is obsessed with trolley cars, and imagines himself a trolley car driver, going so far as to take his imaginary trolley car out daily, wending his way on his ‘route’ through the shantytown where he lives with his mother at the city landfill.
Yet his position in the film is not marginal. He is the engine of the film, appearing on scene to mark the time of the film with his stops and passages through its frame. The film begins as he sets out on his journey for the day and although the film takes place over the course of several days, it is bookended with his return from his route at nighttime. As Kurosawa once put it, Rokuchan carries the audience in his imaginary trolley.
Rokuchan is a whimsical, gentle driver, full of optimism and high spirits as the music that accompanies his trolley journeys indicates, and concerned with driving his route. Although he is not literally witness to every moment in the film, we see the little shantytown through his eyes. This unique film—the script was written in record time and the filming was done in nine weeks—did not come easily to Kurosawa, and to see that, one needs to step outside the frame of the film for a moment.
Imagine there is something you’ve been born to do, or, even if you haven’t been born to do it, you’ve come to do it and, once you’ve started, you don’t ever want to stop. It’s something that has put down roots, to paraphrase Rilke, into the depths of your heart—the activity about which you can honestly say “I must do this!” and around which you’ve built your life. It’s a drive that manifests itself in even the most insignificant hours of your everyday life. This was filmmaking for Akira Kurosawa.
Beginning from the time when he lived with his brother Heigo, a benshi, or narrator for silent films in Tokyo, he began absorbing the films of his day, becoming drawn further and further into the world of cinema. At age twenty-five, he was hired as an assistant director at the young film studio that would later become Toho Films. Here, he began to work on films in a more direct way, getting behind the scenes as an assistant, often to the director Kajiro Yamamoto. By the time he took over the reins from Yamamoto on the film Horse, at the age of thirty-one, he was all in, and devoted the rest of his life, nearly sixty years, to his craft.
While Kurosawa was something of a humanist, and not an especially religious person himself, his devotion to cinema and to the craft of filmmaking could be not unfairly characterized as religious. When asked about his relation to films, he once said: “It’s simple. Take myself, subtract movies, and the result is zero.”
For many years, and especially after Drunken Angel in 1948—the film usually regarded as his breakthrough film—Kurosawa made films at an astounding rate, averaging almost one film per year between 1948 and 1965. Yet, sometime around 1965, for various reasons, at the age of fifty-five, Kurosawa hit a wall. The making of Red Beard, released in 1965, was very difficult—the filming lasted over a year, and was marred by a falling out between Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, who had starred in almost all of Kurosawa’s films since Drunken Angel. Red Beard would mark the final collaboration of these two great artists Although it is a great success as a film (and is still well-loved in Japan today), Red Beard took a heavy toll on Kurosawa and left his ‘group’ (the Kurosawa-gumi: those who often worked together on his films) exhausted.
Despite the director’s tremendous success both in Japan and internationally, Kurosawa’s studio, Toho, had been pushing him to personally absorb some of the costs, and with them, some of the risks, of his films, many of which were large productions requiring immense budgets. Japanese society, in the midst of a post-war boom, was changing and, with it, the Japanese film industry was changing too. By the early 1960s, one could no longer count on a large crowd at the big city box offices wanting to keep cool and find a bit of entertainment.
Kurosawa was also feeling pressure from Toho to make money and, if a film was popular, to make sequels. Later, in a visit to America in 1980, occasioned by a retrospective of his work put on by Japan House in New York, he insisted that his freedom as a director at this time was already being reduced, and that there was a sort of social censorship emerging. The Bad Sleep Well, he insisted to many he met in Manhattan, did not have the ending he wished for. In the final scene, the voice on the other end of the phone, the voice of the Prime Minister, could not be heard. One could imply that it was the Prime Minister’s voice, or leave it to audience conjecture, but one could not put this into the film. It was a censorship not of ideologues but of corporate elements within Toho. The Japanese film industry was, to hear Kurosawa tell it, on its last legs.
Given that all this was the case, it could only have come as a relief to Kurosawa, at least initially, that his contract with the studio Toho expired in 1966. He was by this time deeply pessimistic about the domestic film industry in Japan, and thought he might be able to do better for himself elsewhere. He set his sights initially on Hollywood, but, the barriers and obstacles to filmmaking in Kurosawa’s way proved to be just as insurmountable as those in Japan. If anything, he experienced less freedom in Hollywood with 20th Century Fox than he had with Toho. His first proposed project—The Runaway Train, which was based on a story in LIFE magazine—never even began filming. The script was delayed, and then filming was put off because of the need for snow, and then eventually cancelled entirely.
Still, he had another, perhaps even more promising project lined up in Tora! Tora! Tora! , a film which would portray the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor from both American and Japanese perspectives, with two directors, Kurosawa and an English-speaking director taking each half of the film. Yet from the beginning the project was a disappointment to Kurosawa and, one can imagine, deeply frustrating. First of all, the producers hired Richard Fleischer, the special-effects guru of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea fame, to direct the American half of the film, and not the esteemed English director David Lean, as Kurosawa had been lead to believe. Then, the time allotted to the Japanese part of the film was cut to just 90 minutes, after Kurosawa had devised a script that ran, in typical Kurosawa style, to nearly four hours. It wasn’t until May of 1968 that a shortened script was agreed upon, and filming did not begin until December 1968. But the working methods of the Americans were vastly different, and Kurosawa was constantly out-of-sorts and had difficulty adapting to this different universe. After just three weeks, the producers effectively fired Kurosawa on December 24, saying he suffered from “fatigue.” Yet, the implication and the rumors in the tabloids and elsewhere were that Kurosawa was mentally unstable.
Teruyo Nogami, Kurosawa’s primary assistant and right-hand woman from about 1955, once described this time for Kurosawa in an interview with the Japan Times about a decade after Kurosawa’s death. She said that, “The whole experience was frustrating for him. He was drinking every night and behaving badly. Tora! Tora! Tora! was the toughest experience of his career. [After he came back to Japan], he wanted to forget the whole thing.”
If making films was everything to Kurosawa, this was a particularly dark episode in his life. He was now faced with a situation in which he had failed at two films in Hollywood, and had no contract with any of the studios back in Japan, nor any prospects for one. None of the major studios in Japan at the time wanted to back a Kurosawa film, because of his reputation for making outsized projects that took a long time to film and had immense budgets. The thought must at least have occurred to him on several occasions that he would never make a film again—that he was finished. The possibility that he might not be able to continue doing what made his life worth living, one can imagine, must have been unbearable. The stress must have been intense.
While Kurosawa may well not have been, as 20th Century Fox’s producers so ungraciously implied, mentally unstable, he was certainly stretched to the limit. He claimed in a 1970 interview, which appeared in Kinema Jumpo, that after he finished the script for Dodeskaden that he had “racked his brains almost to the point of a nervous breakdown” trying to figure out how to direct it. Given Kurosawa’s situation at the time, it’s not hard to believe that this was more than just a figure of speech.
While much has been made of Kurosawa’s suicide attempt in 1971 and it’s connection to the failure of Dodeskaden at the box office, it makes more sense to see this event as part of a larger struggle for the director. It is important not to see this struggle reductively, as perhaps one might be tempted to, as a problem with drink or in clinical terms, but rather as a struggle that involved the whole of Kurosawa, including—and perhaps especially—his creative part.
Kurosawa was a highly intelligent person, but his creativity was the core of who he was. As he once noted in an interview, with Bert Cardullo, “All I am capable of doing is creating…” This struggle to create, through the medium of film, constituted Kurosawa’s life. To be without this possibility was impossible to imagine. Kurosawa’s need, that drive within him, to get back to filmmaking as he knew it should be done, was in the best sense a drive to return to his true self, one which perhaps had been buried in America and even in the years prior with Toho, amid the pressures of box office and corporate interests.
Rather than portray Dodeskaden as many have done, as the imperfect film whose failure pushed Kurosawa over the edge to a suicide attempt, one could see it instead as a cri de coeur by Kurosawa for the sort of independent production that he favored, in which the director had his freedom, both to film the way he wanted and also the freedom of the final cut. After the failure of his time in Hollywood, Dodeskaden was an attempt to create again in conditions favorable to his art.
Nogami, in the same interview with Japan Times mentioned above, notes that Kurosawa had, “got some good advice [after his return to Japan]: to empty out his head and become … a ‘fool.’ His film Dodeskaden is an expression of that attitude. The hero is a simple-minded boy who is a fool for trains—just as Kurosawa was a fool for films. If he hadn’t made Dodeskaden, he might have fallen apart completely.” Kurosawa was throwing himself back into the only thing he knew how to do: namely, making films. In a documentary about the making of Dodeskaden, many of the actors comment on and reminisce about the great emotion with which Kurosawa on the first day of filming uttered the words, “Ready! Action!” It had clearly been a long journey, and it must have been a relief to be back on the sort of set he was accustomed to for the first time since the wrapping of Red Beard in 1965.
Like the trolley fool, Rokuchan, whose little shack is covered in beautiful, almost stained-glass like sketches and paintings of trolleys, and who imposes a beautiful, if imaginary, order onto his world, with regular schedules, lunches, trolley stops, and everyday concerns, Kurosawa is building his own aesthetic world through the creation of images, working against the disorder and failure, and emotional trauma of the previous years the only way he knows how— by weaving a whole new world into existence. It is a world peopled with figures both comic and tragic, with abusers and victims and small acts of heroism.
This world has a peculiar ethic about it too, which may also be explained by Kurosawa’s unique circumstances during this time. Those who are ‘good’ in this film are those who are more or less content with their lot in life. They are sanguine figures, who go about their work—however absurd it may seem—with diligence and care, despite the chaos around them: the brush-maker, who always counts exactly 30 hairs for each brush, thereby annoying his wife to no end; the careful engraver, an expert both at his craft and at bringing peace to those around him by resolving conflicts; and the trolley fool already mentioned. Not only do they go about their work with precision and proud craftsmanship, but each of these men, with his sanguine and generally upbeat temperament, his well-ordered life, seems to have a certain power about himself, such that he can communicate this general contentment and order to others, who perhaps have gone off the rails in their own lives. The protagonists of the shantytown see things in an en
lightened way, as they truly are. They are not perturbed by drunks or by those who do crazy things, or tell them things meant to harm them. They are clear-eyed in their vision, even if those around them think them naïve or even a bit insane.
The ‘bad’ in the world Kurosawa has made are, by contrast, not at all content, and they do not see things as they are, nor do they want others to see them that way. They are constantly distorting the truth to gain their own advantage, and they seek to use others for their own pleasure and ends. The clearest example of such a figure in Dodeskaden is the uncle of Katsuko, who works her as hard as possible, complains of her cooking, and finally rapes her only to try and pin his crime on the delivery boy from the sake shop. His cramped vision of reality and his sour, cruel temperament lead him constantly into arguing and bickering with others, and ultimately into using others for his own ends.
Kurosawa consistently denied that his films had a message in almost every interview where this topic was raised. And if we go back to his early days as a painter, we find him eventually giving up painting because he feels that those around him are painting in a didactic fashion of which he does not approve.
What we can find in Dodeskaden, however, is a notion of goodness which has certain qualities: first and foremost, a vision or insight which is directed beyond one’s own wants and needs such that it is in the service of others, a relation to Kurosawa’s common theme of placing the good of society above that of the individual. Besides vision, the goodness of the characters in the film consists in a certain calm that pervades their person, an imperturbable nature, in the face of chaos, as well as a generally optimistic view of life, that everything is as it should be. Lastly, there is a careful devotion to the work in question combined with an attention to detail, and to doing everything the best it can be done.
In this first film since Red Beard, he was looking to return to himself, to his true nature, and to those qualities—namely vision, an unperturbed and contented mind, and a careful devotion to his craft—which represented the best of his qualities as a filmmaker. It is important to notice, however, that this goodness is not a moralistic goodness, gained by keeping oneself above the fray of life. Instead, like the trolley fool, Kurosawa in Dodeskaden gives himself over to being a fool for the cinema—pretending to know nothing, except how to creatively make films—and it is in this state that his vision and his craft are naturally regained.
In this light, one can see two things about these years for Kurosawa: first of all, one can see what a tremendous blow it must have been when Dodeskaden did not succeed at the box office. Although Kurosawa as a director was never one to worry excessively about the commercial success of his films he knew how much was riding on the success of this film: had it succeeded, he would have shown that he could make a film, inexpensively and in a short period of time, which would also be a success at the box office. He likewise knew that, if it did not succeed, even he could hardly expect further funding, even from his close friends in the movie world. In light of this realization, one can perhaps begin to understand why Kurosawa might have become depressed and eventually attempted suicide.
In another sense, however, one can view Dodeskaden as a recovery for Kurosawa, even though the outward signs of this recovery might have been somewhat delayed. Kurosawa had, in making Dodeskaden, achieved several important goals. Most importantly, he had regained contact with his own creative spirit, which is really the heart of who he was. Secondly, on a more pragmatic level, he had broken another barrier for himself as a director, and begun to make use of color film. Lastly, Dodeskaden explores what it means to create a reality for oneself, and the connections that such an activity have with a non-rational state of mind.
In this exploration, there is perhaps a moment of personal liberation for Kurosawa, wherein he embraces more completely than before his role as a creator of films, which in turn paves the way for his late career masterpieces such as Kagemusha, Dreams and Ran. For all of its imperfections, without Dodeskaden, it would have been much more difficult, if not impossible, for Kurosawa to move forward and step into what we now see as the next period of fruitful filmmaking, from which come some of Kurosawa’s most lasting contributions to cinema.