Kurosawa’s first film after Red Beard (1965), Dodes’ka-Den was panned by the critics in Japan, despite receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film of 1970 in the United States. Over the years it has come to be respected for its expressionistic use of color and unique characters, although it is rarely shown in theaters or as a part of Kurosawa retrospectives, which is perhaps due to its being regarded (unjustly in the opinion of this reviewer) as not being among Kurosawa’s better films. The original film was 240 minutes as cut by Kurosawa, but was cut again after initial release by the distributors to 140 minutes. The cut portions were destroyed.
Kurosawa’s first color film (thanks to the suggestion of Henri Langlois and under the inspiration of some of Eisenstein’s color sequences), this film was made possible by a group of directors, of which Kurosawa was one, calling themselves the Four Knights. The group was originally formed to provide support to Kurosawa who, after 1966, was not under contract with any of the Japanese studios and could not find one which would back his projects, which were generally viewed as being too large and too expensive. The others members of the Four Knights were Keisuke Kinoshita, Masaki Kobayashi, and Kon Ichikawa. They disbanded after the critical failure that was Dodes’ka-Den. This was the only film they made together although another script they worked on before Dodes’ka-Den, a period piece called Dora-Heita (2000) would later be filmed by Kon Ichikawa after Kurosawa’s death.
Dodes’ka-Den is based on a series of short stories by Shugoro Yamamoto from 1962 (A City Without Seasons), whose work was also used by Kurosawa in two other films, Red Beard (1965) and Sanjuro (1962). The screenplay was written in a very short time by Kurosawa together with Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto. Kurosawa notes in a 1970 interview from Kinema Jumpo that they holed up at one of their usual hotels to write, but they were done and left so soon thereafter that the hotel owner, who had hosted them before, thought it was because they did not like his place. He said to them, “From now on, you will only be given the best food!”
Filming started shortly thereafter and was completed in record time, just nine short weeks, on a day reserved for rehearsal. Some have speculated that Kurosawa was under pressure to show that he could work quickly, but it was also the case that the filming went smoothly, by all accounts.
The film’s plot follows numerous characters living in a slum on the outskirts of Tokyo. The film is devoted to showing their humanity, in the midst of difficult lives, as the various characters struggle to find a reason for living. Some, better than others, do their best to help their neighbors find meaning in their lives, while others take what they can get with no regard for their fellow human beings.