Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Running Time: 140 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 1.0 Japanese
MSRP: $ 29.95
Release Date: March 17, 2009
Review Date: February 25, 2009
Master Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa ended a dark period of inactivity and frustration with his 1970 effort Dodes’ka-den, his first foray into color filmmaking, and one of the more unusual pictures in his filmography. Rather than focusing on a single, strong core story, Kurosawa has instead given us a slice of life among some lower class people, his storytelling encompassing some half dozen tales of variable interest. While not among the handful of masterpieces turned out by the celebrated and much honored filmmaker, Dodes’ka-den contains enough of the master’s art to drag the viewer into this semi-squalid world and offer an enjoyable if not fully satisfying experience.
An unusual cabal of villagers live in a Japanese shantytown, some of whom we get to spend varying amounts of time with. We begin with Rokuchan (Yoshitaka Zushi), whom the locals call “trolley freak,” beginning and ending his days pretending to be a trolley car conductor. As he passes by a group of local woman washing their clothes at the village spigot, they gossip about certain other folks in the surrounding shacks. There are two day laboring husbands (Kunie Tanaka, Hisashi Igawa) who nightly return drunk to their individual houses but sometimes swap houses in their individual stupors. More interesting are a beggar (Noboru Mitani) and his very young son (Hiroyuki Kawase) who live in a hollowed out Volkswagen while the son begs food scraps from local eateries. There’s the lazy, continually complaining Kyota (Tatsuo Matsumura) who does nothing while his niece (Tomoku Tamazaki) works day and night piecing together paper flowers for sale to put food on the table. There’s the elderly village sage (Kamatari Fujiwara) who kindly offers help to those in trouble (including showing a burglar where his money is and offering to give him money again if he needs it). And finally there is the village blind man (Jerry Fujio) whose wife (Kayako Sono) left him for another man and who has now returned.
There are even more stories than the ones noted above. Slice of life dramas such as this don’t always have a viable number of well told stories. We catch some of these during momentous events in the lives of the participants while others are begun and either dribble away or cease to retain focus due to more consequential stories forcing them to the sidelines. The beggar and his son and the exhausted niece raped by her loutish uncle constitute the piece’s two strongest dramatic arcs, and these two stories also offer director Kurosawa his greatest moments of experimenting with color for dramatic effect. One of the most beautiful moments in cinema occurs when the exhausted Katsuko slumps into her floor full of paper flowers of various fiery shades of red, blue, and yellow while her uncle, standing over her, disturbs the beauty with his hideous, selfish sexual urges. No less horrifying in its cruel rapture is a late scene where the beggar and his son, having eaten old fish and contracted botulism, emerge at sunset literally green with poisoning, their ill health accentuated by the oranges of the evening sunset. It’s one of the most haunting images in all color films by any director.
Many of the actors in the film were doing their first work with Kurosawa, but despite that, some of the performances are simply riveting. Foremost among them is Junzaburo Ban playing an invalid businessman with a severe nerve tic who invites some friends home for saki but who ends up throttling one of his colleagues who takes issue with the wife’s cold treatment of the guests. Jerry Fujio’s “man with dead eyes” is ragingly poignant, and both Noboru Mitani and Hiroyuki Kawase as the beggar and his son leave lasting impressions. Tomoku Tamazaki’s quiet interpretation of Katsuko is perhaps too quiet, her fierce demonstration of family loyalty being handled off camera and thus not offering the actress any variation from her simpering, understated character.
The film has been framed at the director’s preferred 1.33:1 aspect ratio and is windowboxed in Criterion’s customary fashion. The transfer offers a brilliant color palette without blooming hues and black levels that are usually very rich and are only occasionally less so. Sharpness for the most part is quite strong through there are individual scenes which seem a little softer than expected. The bright white subtitles are easy to read. The film has been divided into 29 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 1.0 audio mix is typical for its era, and there is light hiss and occasional flutter to be heard though only in the quieter passages is it really noticeable. Otherwise, the dialog, sound effects, and music all occupy the center channel with ease.
The film’s theatrical trailer in strong color and presented as the film is in 4:3 runs 3 ½ minutes.
“Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create” is a 36 ¼-minute excerpt from the Toho Masterworks documentary about the director’s legendary career. This segment covers the dark period between 1965-1970 when Kurosawa saw projects abandoned (The Runaway Train), found himself dismissed from a massive film project (Tora! Tora! Tora!), and enjoyed the happy experience of making this film in 28 shooting days. Many colleagues from the film and his life contribute interviews for this very worthwhile featurette. It’s presented in 4:3.
The enclosed 26-page booklet contains cast and crew lists, a chapter listing, some stills from the film, an essay on this period in Kurosawa’s life by film scholar Stephan Prince, and an interview with Teruyo Nogami who served as one of Kurosawa’s principal assistants.
Any Akira Kurosawa film is worth watching and even Dodes’ka-den, while not one of his masterworks, is richly involving and capable of stirring great emotions in the viewer. Recommended!