March 17, 2009

DVD OF THE WEEK: Dodes'ka-den


Review by Vadim Rizov (The Village Voice, The House Next Door).

1970's Dodes'ka-den stands alone and damned in film history as the rare film whose failure drove its director to attempt suicide. Unprecedented in Akira Kurosawa's career up to that point (its failure guaranteed no similar offerings), Dodes'ka-den was horrendously received in Japan; Kurosawa responded by slashing himself over 30 times with a razor. He survived; the film's reputation didn't. Criterion's issue of the film offers a chance at redemption. Safe to say the film won't be canonically integrated anytime soon — it's fairly turgid — but also rewarding viewing for Kurosawa devotees. There's nothing else like it in his canon.

Dodes'ka-den unfolds in a bombed-out trash heap on the outskirts of Tokyo just after the war (a piece of information I would've never sussed out without the ever-invaluable Criterion essay supplements). Debris stretches in every direction; the scale of the disaster (and the set) put me in mind of another huge failure with a big set, Jacques Tati's Playtime. Kurosawa begins inside the house of Rokkuchan (Yoshitaka Zushi); while his mother (Kin Sugai) prays to Buddha, he joins her inside the room, praying for his mother to be less stupid. There are tears in her eyes, but not because he's cruel: he's actually the literally retarded one, operating an imaginary trolley with complete conviction, marveling at the dolts that almost get run over. The inside of their house is like a chapel designed by kindergarteners: bright crayon drawings of trolleys fill up the panes, and sunlight blows them out. It's poverty as outsider pop art.

Indeed, Dodes'ka-den is best known for its color, which is truly, luridly dazzling (especially when Kurosawa introduces blatantly artificial colored sky sets that look like leftovers from Kwaidan; he'd use them for the rest of his career, the only directly salvageable thing from this film). There's a particularly terrific moment of rainfall on the lake, with the studio-controlled rain micro-changing its falling patterns, creating fantastic patterns on the water's surface. More ominously, there's a moment when mute Katsuko (Tomoko Yamikazi) is raped by her uncle on a bed of fake red roses, splayed out against its ad-hoc bedding (an image that presumably seared itself into Alan Ball's head).

At its worst, Dodes'ka-den suggests filmed theater: characters enter in theatrical silence, perform some "business," then get down to the hard work of long, showy exchanges. (This is a film of many characters, most of whom don't get their full due.) Yet that clash between theater's blatant artifice and film's subtler kind suggests another tension, one that Kurosawa would exploit in his later work the more static his camera became: the role of theatricality and ritual, and what happens when emotions becomes too intense and rupture that surface. Dodes'ka-den is showy, but it points the way to Kurosawa's later discipline in exploiting the gap between stylized ritual and emotion. For that alone it's worth a look; you can actually logically get to Kagemusha from here.

Criterion's DVD has the colors in perfect shape and the usual primer essays. The original trailer is here, but there's not much of value in it. There's also a 2003 documentary from the Toho Masterworks series, which is pretty dull — talking head, still, talking head, still — but full of valuable information, like reminding us that one of the reasons Kurosawa went five years between Red Beard and this was his attempt to make Runaway Train, which later became a basic-cable Jon Voight staple. (It's also punctuated by really ominous synths that sound like "Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?") -- vadim rizov

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Posted by cphillips at March 17, 2009 12:42 PM


I actually loved this film. It made an indelible impression on me, and I haven't forgotten it, though it has been years since I saw it. It deserves to be reconsidered.

Posted by: Marilyn at March 18, 2009 1:47 PM

"Dodes'ka-den" is, to me, very like many of Kurosawa's other films: it is a lighter version of his "Lower Depths" and shares the bombed out look of "Drunken Angel" and "Stray Dog" and even the neighborhood that becomes a park in "Ikiru." The fantasy and imagism remind me of some of "Dreams" as well.

Kurosawa reworked many themes and images over his career. "Dodes'ka-den" is an outlier among his work but it is part and parcel of it too.

Posted by: gmoke at March 29, 2009 10:15 PM

I must say I found this Criterion release dissappointing when compared the French Wild Side Films version. Just the vibrancy of the reds, blues and yellows (which I assume was central to Kurosawa’s vision for the film) makes so much difference to the enjoyment of this film even allowing that it was a struggle for me to follow the French sub-titles.

I have set up some comparison screenshots here:

I would very strongly recommend any fan of this film buy a copy of the Wild Side Films version.

Posted by: Doug at March 30, 2009 2:23 AM
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