Home Movies by Charles Taylor: Kurosawa in the shadows

A little-known gem from the late Japanese filmmaker explores the poignant inner world of a shantytown.

Published September 16, 1998 4:21PM (EDT)

"From the moment production begins to the moment it ends, there is no
telling what will happen." That admission of chance wasn't what we expected
of Akira Kurosawa, who died on Sept. 6 at 88 -- think of the
siege sequence in "Seven Samurai" or the majestic battle scenes in "Ran"
(made when Kurosawa was in his mid-70s) and try to imagine the
meticulousness that went into their planning, staging and filming. The
title "Ran" means "chaos," and the most visceral moments of Kurosawa's
version of "King Lear" do make us feel as if we're stranded in hell. But
Kurosawa pulls off the spectacle with a flabbergasting precision. What, you
wonder, would have happened if one extra had missed his cue, if one horse
had reared up when it shouldn't have? Looking at these scenes now, I
envision Kurosawa overseeing the set from a great height, behind his
ever-present dark glasses, cowing any accident waiting to happen through
sheer, cussed confidence.

Even what may be Kurosawa's least characteristic film, "Dodes'ka-den"
(1970), demonstrates formidable control. In some ways, planning this picture
must have been even harder than planning his epic battles. Those films move
in rhythm to an overarching dramatic thrust. "Dodes'ka-den" is a picaresque
that required the director to orchestrate its separate vignettes into a
cohesive whole. Cutting from one character to another (characters whose
paths do not necessarily intersect), Kurosawa prefigures the
multicharacter method Robert Altman used in "McCabe and Mrs. Miller,"
"Nashville" and other films (although without Altman's penchant for
improvisation). Set in a squatter's shantytown, "Dodes'ka-den" draws us in
with its lyricism and playfulness, qualities that -- though this is one of
Kurosawa's greatest works -- may be the reason it's all but forgotten. You
could mistake the film for nothing more than a colorful diversion, but
given the emotional state Kurosawa was in when he made it, its benevolence
seems not merely humane but extraordinarily brave. "Dodes'ka-den" is the
work of a man who was struggling, in his life and career, to accept that he
could never know what might happen next.

According to Audie Bock's preface for Kurosawa's "Something Like an
Autobiography," the middle-aged Kurosawa's very successful career took an
abrupt downturn after he agreed and then declined to direct the Japanese
segments of the war extravaganza "Tora! Tora! Tora!" when it became clear
he would not have creative control. Accused of perfectionism, he was only
able to begin "Dodes'ka-den" when three other directors agreed to produce
it with him. The film was his first commercial failure. With next to no
commercial prospects and suffering from a painful and undiagnosed gall
bladder condition, Kurosawa attempted to kill himself in 1971. The Japanese
film industry was no longer able to finance his expensive projects, so
Kurosawa had to turn to the Soviet Union's Mosfilm to finance his next picture,
"Dersu Uzala" (1976), and longtime admirers George Lucas and Francis Ford
Coppola to broker a worldwide distribution deal for 1980's "Kagemusha."

The title "Dodes'ka-den" is a phonetic imitation of a trolley car --
something like the English word "clickety-clack" -- made by the first
character we meet in the film, a simple-minded young fantasist (the
diminutive Yoshitaka Zushi) who spends his days pretending to drive a
trolley through the rubbish heaps surrounding a shantytown. "Dodes'ka-den"
follows his journey, spliced together with the stories of the
down-and-outers who make up the town, and ends in the evening when he
brings his imaginary trolley car back to its point of embarkation.

There are broadly comic episodes -- like the two working men whose wives
periodically switch husbands when they become tired of their own coming
home drunk. Others have a gentle tone of poetic, almost Chaplinesque
melancholy -- like the beggar (Noburu Mitani) humored by his practical
young son (Hiroyuki Kawase) as he spins fantasies of the house they will
build together, or the man (Shinsuke Minami) who lovingly reassures his
wife's gaggle of illegitimate children that he's their real father. The
story line involving a young girl (Tomoko Yamazaki) worked to exhaustion by
a drunkard uncle (Tatsuo Matsumura) who leaves her pregnant and despairing
is like a D.W. Griffith melodrama redone by an Italian neo-realist.

Kurosawa regards them all with a paternal affection that's never
condescending, even when his characters are silly or spiteful. In some
scenes, the director's sad, bemused tolerance is passed on to the
characters. When the town's wise elder (Masahiko Kamatani) awakens in the
middle of the night to find a thief (Sanji Kojima) stealing his tool box,
he gently guides the intruder to where the money is and tells him to come
back if he finds himself in need. In another scene, a struggling
businessman (Junzaburo Ban) fiercely guards the dignity of the hostile wife
(Kiyoko Tange) who has always stood by him, defending her against a
colleague's disparaging remarks.

Kurosawa's townspeople often behave foolishly, but they're never fools.
"Dodes'ka-den" is somewhat reminiscent of Vittorio De Sica's "Miracle in
Milan," a gentle comic fantasy about a ramshackle community of the poor in
which the goodness of the characters is ultimately rewarded. In De Sica's
finale, they climb upon the brooms of the city's street sweepers and are
borne up to Heaven. "Dodes'ka-den" doesn't have the optimism of "Miracle in
Milan," but the film does approach De Sica's surging humanism, which sweeps
away the barriers between us and the people on-screen. "Dodes'ka-den" may
seem especially poignant because we expect happy endings from so fanciful a
film. This was Kurosawa's first movie in color, and the junkyard and
ramshackle houses have the same storybook quality as the home of the
make-believe conductor, where the rice paper screens are covered with
childish drawings of trolleys.

Kurosawa reserves his most stylized touches for the story of the beggar and
his son; in the scenes when they are at their most desperate, Kurosawa
replaces his location set with a brightly colored studio set covered in
expressionistic drawings of the setting sun. It's as if the paradise the
father constructs in his head had materialized just when he and his boy are
too far gone to notice. It's a heartbreaking disjunction. Painful as
"Dodes'ka-den" can be, what you take away isn't bleakness or despair, but
Kurosawa's embrace of humanity, even in its frailty -- especially in its
frailty. The scale is smaller than usual for Kurosawa, but the spirit it
reveals is epic. Kurosawa knew we were all on the same trolley.

By Charles Taylor

Charles Taylor is a columnist for the Newark Star-Ledger.

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