“Dodes’ka-den” – A.J. Hakari

When it came to the all-time Japanese filmmaking greats, duties were pretty evenly dispersed. Yasujiro Ozu was a maestro of quiet, introspective dramas, while Akira Kurosawa churned out the rousing epics that continue to make film students quake in their boots. But when it came time to make his first color feature, the latter decided that a change of pace was in order. The result was Dodes’ka-den, a drama with which Kurosawa has chosen to celebrate the theatre of life in all of its respects. Dodes’ka-den is an often very slow and meandering work, though there’s certainly no shortage of quirky characters to hold your attention.

Having already brought everything from Shakespeare to detective stories to vivid life onscreen, Kurosawa’s aims this time around are much more down to earth. Quite simply, Dodes’ka-den is a few weeks in the lives of the various occupants of a Tokyo slum, a colorful crew who do their best to get by despite their squalid living conditions. As the film opens, we’re introduced to Rokuchan (Yoshitaka Zushi), a mentally-handicapped lad who spends his days driving an imaginary streetcar throughout his neighborhood. While he makes his rounds around the slums, Kurosawa hops around from resident to resident, each of whom has their own story to tell. A homeless father enchants his son with tales of the dream house he’s constructing in his mind. Two drunkards tired of their wives yelling at them nonchalantly decide to swap spouses. A recluse wanders around in a depressed haze after being abandoned by the woman he loved. Through this mosaic of the lower class, Kurosawa shows that while these folks may not be on the top rung of the social ladder, they still manage to hang on no matter what life throws at them.

It takes a special sort of filmmaker to grab the reins of an inherently artistic endeavor like Dodes’ka-den and steer it away from any and all pretentious pitfalls. If anyone were up to the task, it’d be Kurosawa, a man whose worst movies aren’t even all that bad. Dodes’ka-den unfortunately isn’t one of the master’s finest hours, but that doesn’t make it any less deserving of a watch. Simplicity is the order of the day here, for Kurosawa has done away with shoving his characters into a cliched narrative structure and allowed them to just be themselves. The film flirts with precociousness and fantasy (especially with the bum and his little tyke) but never gives in to them, setting the story on an eccentric but altogether realistic plane. There’s a real storybook quality to Dodes’ka-den, playing out like a collection of fables that come with their own style and distinctive contribution to the film’s overall message.

As you can probably tell, Dodes’ka-den is a slice of life in the truest sense of the term, and as such, Kurosawa isn’t afraid of getting his hands dirty. He covers some fairly dark topics without getting too exploitative, which is perfectly admirable. The trouble is that while he starts out treating his characters with delicacy and the utmost respect, he quickly tires of this approach. After about an hour’s worth of experimentation, Kurosawa begins tearing through subplots and story threads like Kleenex, randomly revisiting the many scattered wads for, frankly, however the hell long he feels like it. At 90 minutes, Dodes’ka-den would be pushing its thin premise but would be otherwise reasonable; instead, another hour gets tacked onto the running time, rendering it more of an endurance test than a film. Little by little, your emotional investment in the characters seems to vanish along with the director’s. Some retain their poignancy, but others are hindered by abrupt and unsatisfying resolutions, victims of Kurosawa having taken the most complicated route to provide viewers with a simple nugget of moral goodness.

I can’t say Dodes’ka-den was a complete success, but I’m grateful Kurosawa took the initiative and at least attempted to create a humanistic drama with the bare minimum of sentimentality. Fans weaned on his samurai classics will get a kick out of it just because it’s so different from anything else on the man’s resume. There were times where I wished I liked Dodes’ka-den more than I did, but I’ll take this picture’s brand of levelheaded optimism over Hollywood’s sunniest slices of soulless cinema any day.

Rating: ★★½☆

-A.J. Hakari

Read more of A.J.’s reviews at ReelTalk Movie Reviews, Classic Movie Guide, and Terror Tube.

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