Monday, November 22, 2010

Reeling Backward: "Dodes'ka-den" (1970)

"Dodes'ka-den" nearly ended Akira Kurosawa's film career -- and his life.

The great Japanese auteur was so devastated by his first color film's failure that he attempted suicide, slashing himself dozens of times with a razor. He recovered, and eventually resumed making movies ... but not for five years.

This gentle drama-comedy about the denizens of a garbage-strewn shantytown is certainly one of Kurosawa's minor works, but I still count myself blessed for having seen it. I saw a brief clip of it years ago in a retrospective of the director's work, and knew I had to see it.

No ronin or samurai or ancient codes of battle honor here. This was one of Kurosawa's rare films set in modern times -- though it still has a lyrical, almost fairy tale quality that makes it feel like it could have been plucked out of ancient mythology.

It's a timeless tale about the disadvantaged and the downtrodden, a celebration of humanity's differences and glorious imperfections.

The title is the Japanese sound for a train or trolley car in motion -- roughly the equivalent of "choo-choo" in English. It's chanted repeatedly by Roku-chan (Yoshitaka Zushi), a mentally challenged boy who lives with his mother in a landscape of hills and valleys shaped by the refuse of humanity.

Roku-chan fantasizes that he is the conductor of one of the trolleys that pass by their house/store every day. He puts on an imaginary hat, lovingly inspects his non-existent train, inserts his key and guides it on a path through the junkyard, shouting "dodeskaden-dodeskaden-dodeskaden-dodeskaden."

The other denizens, of course, consider him insane, and his long-suffering mother repeatedly scrubs graffiti dubbing him "train freak" off their walls. Roku-chan is oblivious, though, and prays to Buddha to "make my mother smarter" -- obviously parroting some of the prayers he's heard her make about him.

I was really intrigued by this pair, and disappointed to learn that they only appear fleetingly in the film, more or less as a framing device for a host of other stories and characters. I would have loved an entire story about just them.

There are too many names and faces for this non-Japanese speaker to keep straight. As is often the case with films featuring a large, ensemble cast and a host of intersecting storylines, we find ourselves intrigued by some and impatient with others. The tale of a grocer whose gaggle of children doubt their own paternity, for example, goes nowhere.

I never could quite understand the tale of the strange, wordless older man who stalks about the shantytown like an apparition, talking to no one and appearing to see nothing. The local harlot once tried to seduce him, but was unnerved by his groaning in his sleep. One day a woman named Ocho shows up and makes herself at home in his shack. She begs him repeatedly for forgiveness, but for what is never made clear. We guess that this is his wife, returned after a long self-imposed exile for the crime that turned him into a walking dead man. But her mission is fruitless, and she eventually leaves without ever being acknowledged.

Also bemusing is the tale of two workmen who return home every day so they can drink themselves into a stupor and complain about how their wives don't treat them right. Kurosawa uses a playful trick with his new medium of color, dressing one man in red and the other in yellow, and even decorating their houses in the same shades. One day the yellow man passes out drunk in the red home, and vice-versa, and they essentially swap wives for awhile. The wives seem content with the change of pace, but the local women who gather at the junkyard's lone faucet to do laundry -- and act as the film's Greek chorus -- are shocked.

The most heartbreaking tale is that of the young girl who lives with her aunt and uncle. Thin and plain, she is compelled to make paper flowers day and night to support her elders. Her uncle is a lazy tyrant, and uses his wife's absence for surgery at the hospital as an opportunity to force himself on the girl. Soon she is pregnant and facing a terrible choice. Her only relief is the kind boy who delivers sake to their home, and sneaks her candy and compliments.

There's also a beggar and his young son who live in the shell of an old automobile. They are slowly constructing an elaborate house using only their imaginations as tools and materials. The man loves to tinker with various styles and ideas, changing things around on a whim. His son is not really an active participant in the building the dream house, only agreeing obediently with his father's latest suggestions and choices.

The boy supports them by begging for food at restaurants in town. One time the father refuses the cook's instruction to boil the fish before eating it, insisting it is sour mackerel pickled in brine, and they both become quite ill. The wise old man who acts as the conscience of the community, and is something of a medicine man, counsels the beggar to seek out a doctor, but is refused. He is not proud, the old man surmises, merely weak.

There are a few other story threads -- a businessman with an embarrassing tic and a harpy of a wife among them -- but there really isn't a central theme or coherent plot in the traditional sense. We're merely peeking in on these vignettes among the garbage, where life is messy but thriving.
And so it goes.

3.5 stars out of four

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