DVD Review: Dodes'ka-den -- Criterion Collection

If you take the title of Akira Kurosawa's first color film, Dodes'ka-den (1970), and translate it into English, what you get is "Clickety-Clack." In the movie it's the sound made by a mentally challenged adolescent (Yoshitaka Zuxhi) who clickety-clacks on foot through his Tokyo slum pretending to be the conductor of an invisible streetcar. (You can see him in the preview trailer at Criterion's site.) He hand-brakes at imaginary trolley stops through the vast shantytown dump site that is home to an eccentric society of poor and desperate residents just barely getting by, trapped there among the landscape's trash heaps and ash piles. They look out for the affably deranged "trolley freak," and it's their stories that Kurosawa reveals to us with a bleak, darkly shaded humanism. And like the driver of the invisible streetcar, most of them try to escape their lives through the only things they have left -- fantasy, alcohol, and idle gossip about their fellow slum-dwellers.

There's the beggar and his sickly son living in a Volkswagen yet "building" their imaginary dream house, complete with a swimming pool. A blind "man with dead eyes" who obsesses that his wife is unfaithful. The women who gather at the water spigot to trade gossipy commentary on the others. The niece who loses herself in vibrant colored paper flowers to offset the sexual brutality of her repulsive uncle. The businessman with the jerky, stork-like walk and who dotes (to the point of murder) on his harpy of a wife. And so on as they lift their grim, gray, interwoven lives with tragicomic dramas in their minds. We see Kurosawa's empathy for their downtrodden state, most memorably through the Technicolor hues -- he was a painter as well, and the DVD box art is one of his pieces -- that add striking brush strokes to the symbolic and dramatic impact of his characters' individualized set pieces.

Shot in 28 days at a real Tokyo dump site, Dodes'ka-den is not a major work from the great Kurosawa. Although at the 1971 Academy Awards it was nominated for Best Foreign Film, its critical and financial failure only deepened the director's long-building depression, and we're fortunate that his suicide attempt -- cutting himself over two dozen times with a razor -- was also a failure. It was five years before he made another film.

But we are talking Kurosawa, and while his unfortunate characters are rather too plainly representative of "the human condition," Dodes'ka-den is in its own right a haunting interior look at society's outcasts, failures, and rejects. (Even if you've never before heard of Kurosawa, if you like Jim Jarmusch you should give this one a spin and spot the possible influences.) Its smattering of social realism mixes deftly with a strange melancholic whimsy. Dodes'ka-den need not be a grand-scale "Kurosawa film" on the order of Rashomon, Seven Samurai, or Ran to give us much that's effective, emotive, and beautiful. Followers of the master should seek it out as a telling work from a critical time in his personal and professional life. There's never a doubt that what you're seeing is a master craftsman putting his passions and labor onto a canvas that meant a lot to him.

An easy pick-up for Kurosawa devotees, the Criterion Collection's new DVD gives Dodes'ka-den a customary stellar presentation, with the film newly remastered to a colorful brilliance and vividness not seen before on home video editions. (DVD Beaver has posted comparison screenshots from this Criterion disc and the previous inferior DVD from Mei Ah.) Criterion has likewise improved the Japanese soundtrack (Dolby Digital mono) and the translation subtitles.

Criterion has added a typical selection of authoritative extras. A 36-minute segment from Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create -- the comprehensive 2002 Toho Masterworks documentary series parceled out among Criterion's other Kurosawa DVDs -- focuses on the making of Dodes'ka-den and the unhappy years leading up to it, a time of severe professional setbacks for the esteemed director (such as getting fired from Tora! Tora! Tora! and rumors of deteriorating mental health). On hand are archival interviews with Kurosawa, actor Yoshitaka Zushi, script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, and others from the production.

Besides the theatrical trailer, the other big extra is the glossy 26-page booklet that includes an interview with Teruyo Nogami (writer, critic, and film lecturer who worked with Kurosawa on every film since 1950's Rashomon), and Kurosawa scholar Stephan Prince's fine essay, True Colors, which Criterion has posted for comments on the website's "online cinematheque."