Filmed at a break neck pace in less than one month, applying vivid color and using a cast of mostly non-professional actors, Dodes’ka-Den marks a notable departure in the filmmaking career of storied Japanese director Akira Kurosawa. A story told in striking images rather than dialogue, Dodes’ka-Den boasts highly experimental elements, at times verging on an art house sensibility, wandering through a series of interconnected stories, following the lives of the Japan’s most down and out post-war citizens.
Set within a garbage dump Dodes’ka-Den strives to bring out the beauty in even the most blasted landscape and a sense honor to the desperate, the impoverished, and the abused characters who try to scrape together lives within it. And while the film retains the directors boundless sympathy for the human condition, it marks a stylistic shift to the vivid, painterly style that would define his later works, such as the ethereal Dreams and his last masterwork, the epic jidaigeki Ran.
Dodes’ka-Den was Kurosawa’s first film in color, and from the first scene, the director takes full advantage of a film stock that finally measured up to his expectations. Interior sets are done in sunshine yellows and fire engine reds, painted ripe citrus shades of orange or wallpapered with brilliantly hued children’s drawings.
In Dodes’ka-Den, Kurosawa the painter is finally reconciled with Kurosawa the filmmaker, and his dramatic, Sirkian flair for color is fully realized. The dependence on color for telling the stories of Dodes’ka-Den is can be a mixed bag, especially when the painterly aesthetic is at odds with the feel of a scene. When, for instance, a sick father and son become ghoulish green and purple figures as their condition worsens, the over the top shades sap the emotional impact of the situation.
More often, though, Kurosawa uses his palette to craft masterful screen paintings, whose styles range from the apocalyptic to the kaleidoscopic. Characters in Dodes’ka-Den live and dress in powerful and eye catching color motifs. They shamble through the blasted landscape of the junkyard, a grey and blasted landscape piled high with refuse and dotted with the shacks and lean-tos of the homeless and the desperate, a too blue sky hanging overhead.
A young woman is assaulted by her abusive uncle against a blood red backdrop of paper flowers, and a homeless man fantasizes about a better life for his family, envisioning a dream home painted in the colors of the setting sun. Colors even determine the transitions from scene to scene, and story to story, a decision that strengthens the film’s aesthetic qualities but damages its overall narrative flow.
Dodes’ka-Den is framed in intimate yet formal shots, where action is taking place slowly and deliberately, often in silhouette against the brightly painted and highly contrasted backgrounds. Throughout the film, Kurosawa explores the faces, hands and actions of his subjects in startling detail – the camera turns an intense, voyeuristic gaze on the residents of the junkyard that is at once sympathetic and unflinching.
The little rituals of daily life are especially important in Dodes’ka-Den, and Kurosawa lends a theatrical flair to activities as inane as gossip and making rice. More stunning is the love and respect which is paid to the most everyday actions. The result is a film that ruminates and lingers on the smallest of actions, whether it is the folding of a paper flower or the pouring of a drink. The deliberation with which these actions are undertaken, and the careful attention paid to them, allows them to transcend their circumstances, as the film’s characters strive to do each day.
At its best, Dodes’ka-Den presents a startling use of color and camera, light and shadow that recalls the works of Edward Hopper – the stories are seen through voyeuristic, downright invasive gazes at intensely personal moments. It is a work most interested in seeing things that should not be on display, and examining the small things we miss in the course of each day.
The audience is subjected to arguments and abuses, family dinners and attempted suicides. Much of the material in Dodes’ka-Den feels like it should be off limits - a wife’s late night confession, her plea for forgiveness accompanied only by silence and faint, guttering candle light, a silently suffering father trying to determine which of his unfaithful wife’s children are really his - and it is these moments that Kurosawa lingers on the finest effect. The lives of characters intersect throughout Dodes’ka-Den, but the real stories are told in single, expertly crafted screen pictures.
While Dodeskaden is technically beautiful, the stories it tells leave something to be desired. The film meanders carelessly through plots and the narrative threads are poorly balanced. The film’s wandering demeanor leave it feeling occasionally lost. The way we stumble into scenes can be jarring and disruptive, and the film’s different storylines don’t flow together naturally.
And at almost two and a half hours, the film seems overlong, with a number of scenes that serve neither plot nor aesthetics. Ultimately, though, Dodes’ka-Den is enough of a technical achievement that it’s stories, often more reminiscent of proverbs or fables, are merely an excuse for filmmaking executed with unmatched grace and artistry.
The latest release of Dodes’ka-Den by Criterion Films includes a booklet, featuring an enlightening essay on the work by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince and an interview with longtime Kurosawa collaborator Teruyo Nogami, as well as Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, a short documentary on the making of Dodes’ka-Den, the upheaval in Kurosawa’s professional life that led up to it, and the place it occupies in the director’s cinematic legacy.