#16 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
This is the film that led to Akira Kurosawa’s suicide attempt. After Red Beard, Kurosawa had gone to Hollywood and attempted to put together a pair of films, most notably the Japanese segments of Tora! Tora! Tora!, a process that ended up getting Kurosawa fired after a few weeks into the production, the efforts to conform to American production methods too great a divide for the heavy drinking master filmmaker. Together with three other Japanese filmmakers (Masaki Kobayashi, Keisuke Kinoshita, and Kon Ichikawa), he formed the Committee of the Four Knights, a new independent production company designed to help get him funding for a film with the hope that all four would make a film under the label. When Kurosawa’s film failed to garner the kind of critical praise he was used to and performed poorly at the Japanese box office, the organization folded up, and Kurosawa entered into the depression that nearly cost him his life. From a business perspective, Dodes’ka-den was the exact wrong movie to start this kind of effort. In order to guarantee the kind of returns that would lead to the funds to make three more films, Kurosawa probably should have returned to the more populist fare like Yojimbo or The Hidden Fortress. Instead, he made what essentially amounts to a colorful version of The Lower Depths, based on a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto.
That’s not to say the movie is bad by any means. I enjoy it quite a bit, but the film is not exactly a crowd pleaser. It’s a largely depressing tale of poverty that is completely absent any kind of wildly compelling character or actor (the cast mostly being lesser-known actors outside of Kurosawa’s typical acting troupe) like Toshiro Mifune in The Lower Depths. It also has no real discernable plot, so the whole exercise is a challenge for most audiences. Those looking for things other than plot and a likable lead will find a lot to appreciate, but that audience tends to be smaller than the other.
The film is a series of vignettes about a group of people living in a slum outside of Tokyo. The film paints a portrait, realistic at first and surrealistic by the end, of how these people exist and remain in the middle of the giant trash heap that they live in. We start with a young man, Roku-chan (Yoshitaka Zushi), and his mother, Okuni (Kin Sugai). Okuni is desperately praying and chanting to the Buddha as Roku-chan gets ready to start his day, and we’re not quite sure why she prays so hard. In fact, my first impression was that Roku-chan was the mentally balanced one while his mother was a bit off-kilter. I think that’s an intentional thing on Kurosawa’s part because the reveal of Roku-chan putting invisible things into his pockets and then going out to inspect his invisible tram car, chastising the maintenance men for their shoddy work to himself, is rather stark. The two’s differing reactions to how they live in this place is rather key to understanding the whole film, I think. Roku-chan is mentally challenged, probably autistic, and completely dedicated to the fantasy world that he is a tram driver with eight runs in the morning and eight runs in the afternoon. His mother, on the other hand, is trapped because of him. Could he live happily anywhere else? It’s not clear, but it’s clear to her that he needs help and she can’t give it to him, so she prays and chants to the Buddha. One is buoyed by his dreams, and the other is anchored by her circumstance. There isn’t any sort of easy answer here. It’s a complex portrait of poverty held up by Kurosawa’s unfailing faith in humanity.
The rest of the cast have their own mixes of circumstance, luck, and choices that keep them where they are. There’s the pair of working friends and their wives. The men go to work together everyday, get sloppy-drunk every night, and their wives complain about them. The pairs end up switching with the husbands going to the other houses for a while, but they just return back as though nothing had happened. There’s a business man with a lame leg and a tic that makes him almost sneeze, who goes to work while his wife angrily negotiates with the local merchant about having to pay for the bad parts of a head of cabbage. There’s a man with dead eyes who barely moves as he does his small crafts to keep himself in rice. His wife comes to visit him, begging him for forgiveness for a past sin, and he simply never acknowledges her presence. There’s a man whose wife is in the hospital, leaving him alone with his young-adult and silent niece who works endlessly to make bouquets of imitation flowers. He eventually rapes her, and she, in a fit of suicidal thoughts about dying and being completely forgotten, stabs the young man who delivers her uncle’s sake. These are not happy stories.
The surrealistic center of the film is a beggar (Noboru Mitani) and his son (Hiroyuki Kawase). The beggar is consumed by visions of building the ideal house on top of a hill (as opposed to the traditional Japanese practice of building in low places, he assures his son). He details the correct gate, the color of the house, the appropriate length of the porch so that his son can play happily, and incorporates a pool at his son’s insistence. All the while, the son is the one going from restaurant to restaurant begging for scraps to take back. It is the beggar’s gentle arrogance that he knows everything that leads him to insisting that they do not cook the mackerel that the cook had insisted needs to be cooked, leading to a vicious case of food poisoning that kills the boy (really…not crowd pleasing stuff at all). As the boy gets worse, the makeup on both becomes more ghostly and the backgrounds become more abstract painterly, almost as though the beggar is descending into a dream world as he tries to rationalize away his son’s declining state of health.
My favorite scene involves the business man, Mr. Shima (Junzaburo Ban). He brings three colleagues to his home for drinks in the common Japanese practice, but his wife (Kiyoko Tange) is rude to both the guests and to her husband. Mr. Shima takes it in stride, defending her to his colleagues, but one takes it too far, insisting that Mr. Shima should kick her out. Mr. Shima, disabled with small hands and a leg that barely works, tackles the man and insists that he apologize. She had put up with so much when they were in much worse circumstances including finding ways to get rice for free from rice sellers by getting them to fill and empty a wet pot, claiming the rice that stuck to the sides, just so they could have enough for a meal. It’s the most concise distillation of the entire point of the film, I think. Poverty is hard, and it has many causes. The best these people can do is find ways to survive and hopefully thrive. Out of every character in the film, I get the sense that Mr. Shima is the one most likely to get out.
At the center of a lot of the little stories is an engraver, Tamba (Atsushi Watanabe), who seems to have lived in the same little hut for decades and watched the place around him descend into a slum. He’s a good man at heart, though, so he gives money to a thief in the night so that he won’t take his tools and refuses to identify him to the police later. He offers up a poison to a suicidal man but gives him just enough doubt to reverse his decision. He gently confronts a raving man with a katana, enough to get him to quiet down and go back inside. He offers help to the beggar, but the beggar refuses it.
This is an ensemble piece, and every character is revolving around the same idea of poverty. They deal with it in different ways. The husbands drink their way into a stupor every night. The beggar dreams. Mr. Shima defends his wife while supporting her after she had supported him. Tamba does his work and helps those he can. It’s also a hard movie because it both completely lacks a plot and gives us some hard things to look at. I have a soft spot in my heart for it, though. I’ve seen it twice now, and its gentle humanity, an extension of not only The Lower Depths but also Ikiru, feels like what Kurosawa was always trying to do. When given the complete freedom, he didn’t tell a grand adventure in medieval Japan, he told the tales of a group of people cast off from the world in contemporary Japan trying to survive and keep their own humanity. It may not be top-tier Kurosawa, but it’s a complex, involving work that deserves attention.