After the release of Sanjuro, Kurosawa reached a point in his career where he seemingly could do no wrong with critics or audiences. His success culminated in the epic Red Beard, which Kurosawa himself said was the summation of his career. But that film proved a notoriously difficult shoot, one that resulted in the fractured professional and personal relationship between Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune, sadly terminating one of the most fruitful actor/director relationships in cinema history.
After Red Beard, Kurosawa planned to make a film entitled The Runaway Train to be shot on 70mm and in color. Disagreements between Kurosawa and the producers nipped the project in the bud, but the director had little time to lament as he was called upon to direct the Japanese sequences of Tora! Tora! Tora!. Kurosawa’s tradition of cinematic autonomy conflicted with the tight reign that the producers, Daryl and Richard Zanuck, attempted to impose on him and the filming. This resulted in two years of lost time with no results which sent Kurosawa headlong into depression. To his unexpected aid came other Japanese directors including Keinosuke Kinoshita, Masaki Kobayashi and Kon Ichikawa who, along with Kurosawa, formed the independent production company “The Four Knights” in an effort to make it easier for Kurosawa to produce a film. The company’s first endeavor was Dodes’ka-den, Kurosawa’s first film in color.
Set in a Japanese landfill, the film follows the disparate lives of the poor people who inhabit the dump. The film, characters and settings are introduced by a young, mentally challenged boy who’s obsessed with trams and fantasizes himself a tram operator. Every day he leaves his mother’s home—itself decorated with his copious tram drawings (drawn by Kurosawa himself and a team of watercolorists)—to board his invisible tram and make his way into the makeshift village. The village is inhabited by a diverse cast of characters: a group of women who daily visit the lone water faucet to wash and gossip; a pair of drunk husbands and their frustrated wives who decide to swap whenever they see fit; a corpse-like man who seems to walk like a zombie through the streets; a tramp who dreams of building a magnificent house for he and his son; a drunkard who forces his young female ward to do all the work so they can make a living; a businessman with an unusual tick; a woman with many children all by different fathers and myriad others.
Even though one can point to certain similarities in previous films, like the focus on the impoverished and slums in The Lower Depths, this is unlike any previous Kurosawa film and rather unlike any that followed. Much of this is because the director did not enter into the realm of color film lightly. A painter himself, Kurosawa was unsatisfied with the unnatural results of Technicolor, and wasn’t even convinced to shoot in color until Henri Langlois showed him the color sequence from part two of Sergei Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible. Dodes’ka-den therefore became Kurosawa’s experiment with color film, and never let it be said that he took a safe or tentative approach; this was one of the most radical experiments with color on film up to this point, perhaps an estranged cousin to Antonioni’s Red Desert.
Much like that film, the brilliant use of color here is marked primarily by its variety and diversity. In some sections Kurosawa uses mostly natural light to render the slums as nastily as they are, but elsewhere he uses color like leitmotifs, as in assigning red and yellow to the two drunks, their wives and their houses so the viewer is never confused as to which one is sleeping where and with whom. Occasionally he’ll cast an image in a static, low-contrast, deep-focus shot; elsewhere creating chiaroscuros with spotlights penetrating the darkness. In one scene he takes to the city, letting the light of the neon signs reflect off of cars and the street. He also sets up a painted backdrop bringing to mind the elaborately painted ones in films from the Hollywood Golden Age like Gone With the Wind.
To allow for such color experimentation, Kurosawa has also abandoned his traditional dynamic editing style and complex compositions for a greater simplicity that favors long takes with minimal movement. The movement that is there acts like commas in long, elegant sentences which frequently allow scenes to play out in one shot. The centerpiece of this style is a ten-plus-minute scene in which the businessman with the tick invites his work associates over for a drink, only to have them insulted by his nasty wife, which results in a fight between him and one of the men. This scene—and indeed much of the film—is an exercise by a director that’s so confident in his skills that he doesn’t need to rely on the editorializing of editing or the over-punctuation of movement to narrate. Instead, he is relying on the strength of his actors, which in itself is no small feat given the cast of relative unknowns and Kurosawa’s lack of familiarity with them.
In keeping with the visual diversity, Kurosawa also keeps the film quite tonally diverse. Even with its immense cast of characters the film shifts effortlessly from drama to comedy, realism to surrealism, the natural to the supernatural. As with many films made up of a variety of loosely connected stories, some pieces work better than others, but in such films it’s often more important how the pieces are sewn together to enhance the whole rather than the completeness of each unto itself. Kurosawa does precisely that here and he somehow manages to hold our attention for each character and story-line as superficially disconnected as they are. The final result is like a cinematic feast that has a sumptuous table laid out with so many delicious foods that it’s difficult to know what to choose from without gorging oneself.
If the film has no predecessors in Kurosawa’s canon, it does mark the emergence of his visually splendid style that would dominate later films like Kagemusha, Ran and Dreams. Perhaps the most obvious example is the touching story of the tramp and his son. The father reveals that they will build a house on a hill, even though Japanese tradition is to build it in the lowlands. Thus begins a recurring motif in which the father builds his imaginary house, frequently asking for the boy’s input while Kurosawa inserts images of the house that’s being built in his mind. When this story ends in tragedy, Kurosawa seems to be ridiculing the disjunction between fantasy and reality, and pointing out how the former leading one away from the latter can have disastrous consequences. But the same can’t be said elsewhere.
In the opening the director revels in the ambiguous fantasy of filmmaking and its ability to reshape reality through its lens. The film opens, after all, with the mentally challenged boy obsessed with trams, but this isn’t made explicit at first as he comes home to his mother who’s praying. The boy joins his mother in prayer, and utters the line “please make my mother smart”. At this point it’s equally likely that the mother rather than the son is the mentally challenged one. However, as the boy goes off and begins to inspect his imaginary tram, we learn the truth. Even here Kurosawa infuses the boy’s imagination with a tremendous dignity, punctuating his riveting tram pantomime with sound effects. Tellingly, when the boy boards his tram and prepares to leave, Kurosawa turns his camera silently into the distance, observing the long road that leads into the unknown. When the camera turns back, it pauses on the boy’s feet. At this moment Kurosawa is celebrating the power of cinema to make the impossible possible, but he also keep us in suspense. We simply don’t know what’s going to happen when the boy takes off in his invisible tram: will we hear the sounds of the tram? Will the boy take off as if on wheels or will we have to watch him walk as a man would? In other words, is Kurosawa going to invite us into the fantasy or make us bear witness to the sadness of fantasy in contrast with reality? The magic of this film is that it’s able to do both. After all, the title is taken from the Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound a tram makes on its journey.
If Kurosawa is filtering the harshness of reality through rose-colored lenses, those same lenses lend a nobility to everything they touch. Perhaps it’s telling that at this point in his life, Kurosawa needed the power of dreams more than ever. The reality of making films could have easily killed one of the cinema’s greatest creative spirits. Instead, Kuruoswa’s films post-1970 seem to be infused with a greater imagination and artistry than anything he had previously produced. Dodes’ka-den isn’t quite at the level of Kurosawa’s masterpieces as it suffers from a distended runtime and certain lack of focus, but it is perhaps Kurosawa at his most whimsical and magical. If nothing else, Dodes’ka-den anticipates the late masterpieces to come.