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Thoughts on Dodes’ka-den

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    I’ve recently grown to appreciate and admire Dodes’ka-den as a movie. Initially, I had a strong disliking for the film, finding it a slog to get through and a mess in terms of dramatic execution. Yet this recent viewing and fully understanding what the film is exploring which is Japan’s lower depths and humanizing people in the lower depths of Japan, I found myself admiring it way more this time around, especially in regards to its unique visual direction. Yet, it remains a fairly divided film in terms of Kurosawa’s filmography, garnering both love and hate. I’m curious where you all stand on Kurosawa’s first color film.



    Hi Sean! An interesting question. As you mentioned visual direction specifically, it brought back memories of my first viewing of the film from a worn-out library VHS. This was back in the mid-90s and the colours were pretty terrible, totally washed out, and I found the story difficult to sit through; dull and sallow like its visuals.

    Compare that to later restored digital copies and it’s like watching an entirely different film. I’m also older, so the story (or stories) probably resonate better with me, but I definitely think it’s also because the colours play such a crucial role in this film. These days, instead of associating the film with “washed-outness” and “sluggishness”, the first things that come to my mind are “vibrant”, “energetic” and “brave”. It’s like a totally different film.



    I am a big fan of this most “un-Kurosawa-like” film. It has some Fellini influence, I feel, and is rather sexier and funnier than usual for AK. I’m thinking of the wife-swappers and the woman with children from multiple men. The big theme is the power of illusion / fiction, which can keep us going in the face of adversity, but can also destroy people – as with the homeless man and his young son.



    My initial reaction was mixed to negative, largely because of the garish colors, meandering structure and moments of emotional manipulation. I still think overall it isn’t as strong or cohesive a film as The Lower Depths, which covers similar territory. But after I thought about it I came to appreciate it more. It’s especially strong and maybe even ahead of its time in its depiction of its female characters and their sexuality, including the husband swappers (given how useless the men are, I think that’s a more accurate description of what’s going on), the woman whose children were fathered by multiple men, and the niece (if I’m remembering the relationships correctly) whose uncle sexually assaults her.

    I’m not sure I can watch it again, though, because of the scenes with the homeless man and his son. And the depiction of the mentally challenged young man whose route through the village is a through line of the film teeters on the verge of cheesy and exploitative for me. I know what Kurosawa wanted his part to do for the film, but I’m not convinced he achieves it. (Possibly because I believe the part was played by an actor and not someone with the intellectual disability being portrayed.)



    Interesting that we all have different reactions. I found the story of the homeless man and son the most affecting of all. The garish colours are similar to the paintings Kurosawa did for Kagemusha. They take the film out of the realm of social realism into something more “mythic.” Whether that actually works or not is a different question.

    The story of the tram-boy was the least interesting to me, which is unfortunate as it is the opener and probably does a fair bit to put people off the film. He’s no more deluded than some of the other characters in the film, such as his religious maniac mother. But that thread doesn’t go anywhere and gets tiresome.

    The film is 50 years old this year.

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