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Film Club: Dora-Heita (Kon Ichikawa, 2000)

Dora Heita the ExplorerDodesukaden, our last month’s film club title, was not originally supposed to be the first (and ultimately only) film produced by the Club of Four Knights, the production company set up by Akira Kurosawa, Kon Ichikawa, Keisuke Kinoshita and Masaki Kobayashi to revitalise the Japanese film industry and, some have suggested, Kurosawa’s career. A strong contender for the first project was the script for Dora-Heita (どら平太), a comic samurai film and the film that we will be discussing this month.

Although written in 1969, Dora-Heita was committed to cellulose only as late as 2000, after all but one of the original four screenwriters had passed away. The only survivor, Kon Ichikawa, helmed the production and turned out a film which received a polite, if not exactly enthusiastic response from critics.

Dora-Heita narrates the exploits of the titular gentleman (the nickname stands for “alley cat” or “playboy”) who comes to a corrupt town disguised as an alcoholic magistrate. In reality a more than capable samurai sent by the local daimyo, his mission is to clean up the town’s crime and lawlessness. Given the basic setup, it is not surprising that the film has often been compared to Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, although in terms of mood and style, it perhaps rather resembles its sequel, Sanjuro. In any case, the comparison is inconvenient for the film, for although it is more than competent, Ichikawa’s 83rd feature film doesn’t quite reach the levels of excellence of the samurai classics of Japan’s golden age of cinema.

While writing the film, the four directors had been thinking about the idea of each of them working on one section of the film, making the result a true collaboration for the young production house. Although this was never to be, it is an interesting question how this might have worked, especially as there appear to be no obvious divisions by which to divide the film between directors.

Another excellent question is whether the film could have been a bigger box office success than Dodesukaden, had the financing for Dora-Heita‘s production come through. And would someone like Toshiro Mifune have made the role his own, or would someone else have been cast as the title character? We will never know, but may forever speculate.

These, and other topics, are what should keep us busy for the next weeks.

Unfortunately, the availability of Dora-Heita is worse than back when we selected it for the film club. Amazon has a few copies both new and used, as does eBay. Other than those, it’s a bit of a search to find the film.


Discussion

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Ugetsu

It looks an interesting film – I must admit this month has crept up on me (I was away most of May) so I’ve forgotten to order a copy in advance – I hope I can get one of those available.

My first thoughts are that it was a strange decision of the ‘four knights’ to go for a drama instead of a fun samurai movie if their intention was to get the company off to a successful start. I’ve never seen any detailed analysis of the drop off in box office returns in Japan after TV became ubiquitous, but I’ve always assumed that it was ‘home drama’ type films and non-genre works which fared worse. I think the universal tendency from the late 1950’s onwards was for the cinema audience to skew more towards young people trying to get out of the house and couples going on dates. So Dodes’kaden always seemed a curious choice from that point of view. Maybe it was simple a case of this film requiring a larger budget than they could afford?

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Vili Maunula

Been really busy here as well. I still need to properly sit down with Dodesukaden!

Ugetsu: Maybe it was simple a case of this film requiring a larger budget than they could afford? Maybe it was simple a case of this film requiring a larger budget than they could afford?

My understanding is that this indeed was exactly the reason. The bank they ultimately got their financing from for the low budget Dodesukaden wasn’t ready to give out quite as much money as they would have needed for the other projects, but did say that if Dodesukaden does well, they would be interested in financing larger productions as well. Alas, that never happened.

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Ugetsu

I watched it last night (I correctly guessed Japan vs Greece would not be a great game).

I have to say I was very disappointed. The script was obviously intended as something of an attempt to do another Yojimbo. While not the same storyline, the overall tone and narrative of the script seemed similar (although obviously meant to be more of a comedy). I think the script was potentially good, if lacking any really interesting plot twists, but I have to say the execution was quite inept. Its a surprise, I really like some of the Kon Ichikawa films I’ve seen, but he has had a reputation for very uneven work since his wife and writing partner (and, it is often claimed, co-director) worked with him. She died in 1983.

The film first of all very obviously suffers from a low budget. The whole thing has a slightly rushed feel to it. Worst of all, the fight scenes are horribly inept, really badly done. It was a case of bad guy runs at good guy, blurry camera movement, bad guy is on the ground. I found myself really wishing for a Kurosawa touch (or indeed, a Kobayashi touch). Some scenes were quite amusing, and I suspect possibly a lot funnier in the original Japanese. There is a touch of Sanjuro in the sole major female character – a formidable Geisha who is the only one who truly terrifies the hero.

I do think that had it been made by Kurosawa it could have been a genuinely good film, although the script definitely would have needed a reworking. The plot was just too obvious, and it lacked any sense of narrative drive. I think Ichikawa got the fine balance of drama and comedy wrong, veering too much to comedy which meant the story lacked any dramatic tension. The whole film is actually quite short, and has a rushed feel to it, almost as if everyone involved couldn’t wait to finish. There was no attempt to flesh out characters. There are also all sorts of inconsistencies in the lead character which could be interesting, but because its rushed its just annoying. I suspect this could be a budgetary thing, or perhaps the edit was a bit crude.

All in all, while it was a film I was quite looking forward to seeing, I have to say its a major disappointment, a really minor work.

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Vili Maunula

Dora-heita may not be a faultless masterpiece, but it certainly is better than that Japan v Greece match! I fell asleep about 15 minutes into it and crawled into bed after I woke up a little before half time.

Sorry to hear though that you were disappointed with the film. I must say that it was a bit worse than I remembered it to be, but I would still cautiously say that I enjoyed it.

There is definitely a shadow of Yojimbo looming over the film, although Sanjuro would in my opinion be an even better comparison. Even then, I think that Dora-Heita makes two major mistakes, both in areas where Yojimbo excels pretty much to perfection.

One of these is that the film doesn’t properly introduce us to the town or the major characters. Yojimbo does this brilliantly, with Kurosawa setting up the milieu pretty much with one single scene, and spends only a few more to introduce us to the major players (even Nakadai’s character, whom we see only much later). With Dora-Heita, the town remains intangible throughout, and even after the first half of the film it is a little difficult to follow who is who and what their exact intentions are. The film is more confusing than it has to be, especially for such a straightforward story.

Secondly, Koji Yakusho, while not a bad actor, doesn’t really bring through the complexity of the lead character. You mentioned that the balance of drama and comedy is wrong, and I think that the main reason for this is the portrayal of the main character. Much would have been remedied by an approach more similar to what Mifune took for Sanjuro in Yojimbo and Sanjuro: a heavier, more dramatic portrayal. Even with the rest of the film remaining as it is, I think that the balance would have been much better this way, and with the central character more interesting, there would also have been more of a sense of direction for the audience. I don’t think that we really connect with the character now.

Although these are not the only faults that Dora-Heita has (some of the editing is a little pedestrian as well), I do think that had they been fixed during production, it would have been a much better film. Had Kurosawa filmed the script in 1970, perhaps with Mifune in the lead role, it could have been great, although one or two more rewrites would indeed probably have been necessary.

Ugetsu: I really like some of the Kon Ichikawa films I’ve seen, but he has had a reputation for very uneven work since his wife and writing partner (and, it is often claimed, co-director) worked with him. She died in 1983.

Interesting, I didn’t know that!

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Ugetsu

Vili:

One of these is that the film doesn’t properly introduce us to the town or the major characters. Yojimbo does this brilliantly, with Kurosawa setting up the milieu pretty much with one single scene, and spends only a few more to introduce us to the major players (even Nakadai’s character, whom we see only much later). With Dora-Heita, the town remains intangible throughout, and even after the first half of the film it is a little difficult to follow who is who and what their exact intentions are. The film is more confusing than it has to be, especially for such a straightforward story.

This is very astute of you Vili. I was wondering why I cared so little about what happened in the town, and you put your finger on it. The town’s characters revolve entirely around the main character, so we don’t ever really get to care about what happens to them. Even when he hands out a pile of cash to free the brothel girls it is treated in a very off-hand way, almost like he gave them a particularly good tip. I also found it a little disconcerting that the film built up the three main gangsters as these evil hoodlums who had turned the town into almost a slave camp, and then they turn out to be slightly comical characters, with their own sense of honour. While it may be that the intention of the writers was that they were pointing out that the real evil is not the Yakuza, but the ‘respectable’ leaders who by omission allow the Yakuza to operate, in the context of a light hearted film it didn’t really work for me. But I’m certain you are right that Kurosawa would have been careful to present us the town and its people as a proper character in its own right.

Secondly, Koji Yakusho, while not a bad actor, doesn’t really bring through the complexity of the lead character. You mentioned that the balance of drama and comedy is wrong, and I think that the main reason for this is the portrayal of the main character. Much would have been remedied by an approach more similar to what Mifune took for Sanjuro in Yojimbo and Sanjuro: a heavier, more dramatic portrayal. Even with the rest of the film remaining as it is, I think that the balance would have been much better this way, and with the central character more interesting, there would also have been more of a sense of direction for the audience. I don’t think that we really connect with the character now.

Again, you are right I think, although I’d be more inclined to blame the script than the actor. I think he was quite entertaining to watch (he seems to be a very big star in Japan), and so was the actress who played the Geisha who pursued him. I think there was a sense in the film that his ‘role’ as a wastrel playboy was particularly difficult for him because it tapped into something the character hated about himself – the notion of someone with alcoholic tendencies having to pretend to be alcoholic being too close to the bone for him to last for long. But the lightness of the film prevented this theme coming out (which I think would have been very interesting). I couldn’t help thinking when watching it that if it was ever remade as a western, Robert Downey Jr. would be perfect.

As for Ichikawa’s wife, I can’t recall the details, but it was in the extra’s of one of Ichikawas films (I think maybe Fires on the Plain), where many of the people involved were at pains to give credit to Natto Wada (this is her pen-name – it is actually a Japanese transliteration of her favourite English actor, who’s name escapes me at the moment). It was suggested that she was not just a great script writer, but she was good at preventing Ichikawa – who seems to have had a very impish sense of humour and never took himself very seriously – from indulging in this worst instincts to trivialise his material. In a very Japanese way, she seems to have declared in the early 1960’s that she was tired of Japanese movies, and simply retired to being a housewife. All in all, she seems to have been a very interesting character.

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Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: I also found it a little disconcerting that the film built up the three main gangsters as these evil hoodlums who had turned the town into almost a slave camp, and then they turn out to be slightly comical characters, with their own sense of honour. While it may be that the intention of the writers was that they were pointing out that the real evil is not the Yakuza, but the ‘respectable’ leaders who by omission allow the Yakuza to operate, in the context of a light hearted film it didn’t really work for me.

Indeed! I was wondering if the script may in fact have been intended as a lighter take on the same topics that The Bad Sleep Well explored. However, the film felt too rushed to really go anywhere with the more serious social commentary.

Another interesting leftover that I thought Kurosawa may have brought into the story and which wasn’t really used to its full potential was the main character’s martial arts background. I think it’s only in the final big battle where he actually draws a sword, and all the way up until then he uses something like jujitsu to deal with those he fights. He also clearly knows where to poke someone to make them unconscious.

Now, my understanding is that samurai were indeed also trained in unarmed combat, but keeping in mind Kurosawa’s early judo films (Sanshiro Sugata was in fact remade in the mid 60s with Kurosawa producing) and his original intention with Sanjuro where the hero would have been totally inept at swordplay, I was wondering if they may have considered making Doraheita into a samurai with only judo or jujitsu skills, and no proficiency with the sword. The scene where he splits up a cup with a single strike seems like it could foreshadow something, but in the end it doesn’t, as he pulls out his sword just a few moments later.

Ugetsu: I think there was a sense in the film that his ‘role’ as a wastrel playboy was particularly difficult for him because it tapped into something the character hated about himself – the notion of someone with alcoholic tendencies having to pretend to be alcoholic being too close to the bone for him to last for long. But the lightness of the film prevented this theme coming out (which I think would have been very interesting). I couldn’t help thinking when watching it that if it was ever remade as a western, Robert Downey Jr. would be perfect.

That’s a very interesting point, and you are right, it would have made the character a great deal more interesting!

All in all, I think that the story and even the script of Dora-Heita had a fair amount of potential in it, but somehow it didn’t come together in Ichikawa’s version. Even fairly small changes could have made it a much better film.

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Ugetsu

Vili

I was wondering if they may have considered making Doraheita into a samurai with only judo or jujitsu skills, and no proficiency with the sword. The scene where he splits up a cup with a single strike seems like it could foreshadow something, but in the end it doesn’t, as he pulls out his sword just a few moments later.

I think you are on to something there. I actually found that a confusing part of the film – his skills seemed to come out of nowhere. I’m not a big fan of superhero films because i can never quite come to like a hero who seems invulnerable (and something stupid like kryptonite doesn’t really work for me as a plot device). It did look like the original conception was as a hero who would not, or could not, use a sword, but then the last sword fight messed that up. I’m not sure whether this constitutes clumsy plotting, or whether there is a deeper reason for this I’m missing. Either way, it did mean that for me there was none of the tension necessary to ever feel excited or drawn in when the main character seemed to be in trouble. Once more, this is a strong reason to regret that Kurosawa wasn’t at the helm (or Kobayashi too, I keep mentioning him because his later samurai films were very good).

On this topic, there is a very good interview here with Gareth Evans, the director of the awesome ‘Raid’ movies about shooting action. Evans has elsewhere said he was brought up watching Kurosawa films. He makes the point that the emotion has to be built into the action – this film I think fails on those grounds. I never felt drawn in to the character, especially in the fight scenes.

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lawless

I watched Dora-Heita yesterday and enjoyed it. It’s lightweight and humorous (in fact, I laughed out loud more than I did watching Yojimbo or Sanjuro), so maybe managing one’s expectations is the key to enjoying it.

The setup in Yojimbo is darker and bitterer, and even Sanjuro, with its theme of keeping sharp swords in their scabbards, is more substantive. To the extent Dora-Heita has substance, it’s more about the corporate and governmental corruption seen in The Bad Sleep Well, or even the bureaucratic nightmares of Ikiru, as the scenes of the secretaries dutifully writing down the new magistrate’s failure to appear in the office seem to suggest. Though I agree that some of the action sequences, especially the climactic one, are filmed weirdly, but it felt like that might have been deliberate. But I thought the way the confrontation between Dora-heita and his friend was filmed was kind of genius.

That’s not to say that the criticisms voiced here are off the mark, just that for the most part they didn’t interfere with my enjoyment.

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Ugetsu

I’m glad you enjoyed it, Lawless. I think my enjoyment might have been undermined by watching it with too high expectations. I think if I’d watched it with brain switched off, I would have found it much more fun. I’ll try it again sometime when I’m in the mood!

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lawless

I forgot to mention that Dora-heita’s situation reminded me more of Oishi, the ringleader of the famous 47 ronin, who pretended to be a drunken wastrel for the year (or two, I don’t remember offhand) it took to lull everyone into a sense of complacency, than Sanjuro.

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Vili Maunula

I too am glad to hear that you enjoyed it, lawless!

I didn’t make the 47 Ronin connection, but that does indeed sound similar. Apropos, did any of you see the new 47 Ronin adaptation with Keanu Reeves from last year? Based on the trailers, it seemed quite a loose take on the original story.

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Ugetsu

Vili

I didn’t make the 47 Ronin connection, but that does indeed sound similar. Apropos, did any of you see the new 47 Ronin adaptation with Keanu Reeves from last year? Based on the trailers, it seemed quite a loose take on the original story.

I didn’t go see it – I was really interested, but it got such consistently terrible reviews it hardly seemed worth the trouble. It does seem that the original story was pretty much abandoned in favour of some excuses to use lots of CGI. I do recall one review which suggested that it might have been misunderstood, so I’m awaiting the backlash against the backlash, but it hasn’t happened yet. Anyway, I will watch it sometime, but I haven’t high expectations.

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lawless

Here’s an extensive review of 47 Ronin written by a LiveJournal friend of mine. She’s Japanese-American, FWIW.

I have no interest in seeing the movie because I don’t see how adding a character and turning it into a paranormal story adds anything to the original.

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Ugetsu

Lawless

Here’s an extensive review of 47 Ronin written by a LiveJournal friend of mine. She’s Japanese-American, FWIW.

Thats a nice review – even though I had not particular interest in the film, the ‘professional’ reviews of it irritated me as so many had clearly been pre-written based on the negative vibes around the film before it even came out. Sometimes there is a bit of a herd mentality behind film reviewing which can really be quite annoying.

I have no interest in seeing the movie because I don’t see how adding a character and turning it into a paranormal story adds anything to the original.

I have no idea if its true or not, but I did read somewhere that it had originally been the intention to make a fairly ‘straight’ version of the story (just adding a ‘half breed’ character to give Reeves, for whom this was a bit of a personal project, a part). But it was a notoriously troubled production and apparently the whole supernatural element was added in to give it international appeal.

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Vili Maunula

Thanks for the link, lawless! It, combined with Ugetsu’s link to the avclub.com review, have actually made me interested again.

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