This film has been referred to as ‘minor Kurosawa’, and if those two terms ever belonged together , then I would seriously begin to doubt the explosive potential of combining elemental sodium and water. Much as a dark sunspot shines bright as a star when seen against the backdrop of space, this film shines just fine on its own. Any comparison to his epics Kagemusha, Ran, or Seven Samurai would make most any film wither in comparison, but in the end Kurosawa is an aggressive humanist. Though Kagemusha was beautifully shot and expansive in its execution during a focal point in Japanese history, ultimately the theme was about identity, and it was an intimate character study despite the massive numbers of extras. Seven Samurai laid the foundation for the action ensemble genre, but the focus was always upon how a life of service affects the individual samurai. Dodes’ka den is a similarly intimate film, focusing on several different inhabitants of a shanty town on the edge of a business district rather than a lone thief.
This was Kurosawa’s first color film, and the master does not appear to have missed a beat when dealing with a new media. Every frame is a riot of color and is beautifully framed from start to finish. If the subtitles were off, one would think this was happy and lighthearted fare. As with Rashomon, he has something rather dark to say about human nature. These are, after all, slums filled with forgotten people, and there are no inspired hobos here spouting off casually wise proverbs. The denizens are poor, lower class day laborers, alcoholics, the mentally beaten, hardworking and broken, or never-working and lazy. Just on the edge of busy streets, such ‘informal settlements’ exist in most every major city in the world, and are meant to be invisible. The crime rates are astronomical and those inhabiting them have learned to live underground, beyond the reach of contemptuous authorities or useless (to them) statistics. Kurosawa spends time with each, weaving stories about them in ways that do justice to their backgrounds without whitewashing their hardships nor exonerating their iniquities.
A mentally retarded man is seen carefully preparing for his day at work. In a masterful show of efficient and silent character development, we watch his mother pray furtively for unspecified favors while the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the tin shack interior to be encased in drawings of trains. He pulls on fictional work gloves and an engineer’s cap, and proceeds to run through the slum streets screaming train noises like “DODES-KA-DEN!”. He is never meant to be a NobletardTM, filled with life and simple joys – he is a mentally deficient and intensely annoying person who cannot help his helplessness, and requires food and shelter from his undoubtedly long-suffering mother who runs a snack cart just to keep her and her son in poverty. Each morning she must endure the taunting and clean off the graffiti that mocks her son’s obsession. Few of the characters here live with something resembling dignity.
The other characters are similarly desperate. There are the gossipy women clustered around the water spigot, a man who exploits her browbeaten adopted daughter as a work slave (among other things) while his wife is hospitalized, a manic father living in a rusted car chassis with his son who spends his days imagining his dream mansion with gilded fencing, two drunks who swap wives and drink away what little money their spouses earn, and a man with a murderer’s eyes who lives in quiet hatred in spurning his former lover. There is little sentimentality to spare here, as everyone lives on the edge of ruin. The human psyche can be all too easily bent beyond recognition with the application of sustained pressure, time, and the absence of hope. Through it all, Kurosawa peppers the film with unforgettable images that almost appear disposable. One person regards a dead, twisted tree silhouetted against a crystalline blue sky, saying “It is no longer a tree when it is dead.” The brilliant palette and ephemeral tone almost mock the harsh subject matter as well as any notion of hope. These people are here to stay until they are dead, leaving behind children to follow in their beaten, shuffling footsteps. Some have fallen here after the failure of a marriage or business, but nobody will leave except via burial.
There is a recurrent motif of illusion, which the filmmaker crafts with precision use of distracting color and occasionally surreal imagery. The retarded ‘engineer’ imagines the trains he drives, and the people he serves, and though he is a constant annoyance to the people, what else is he supposed to do with his time? The drunks live an illusion of happiness while they trade women who live an illusion of marital adequacy. The man who utilizes his adopted daughter is laboring under the misapprehension that he runs his household and is a ‘real man’ in the sense of being a provider while doing absolutely nothing to strengthen the house. Finally, the disheveled man and his son, living in the rusted hulk of a car and trying in vain to stay warm while subsisting on food cast into trash bins or the kindness of local butchers. He spends each day detailing the various European styles which their mansion would emulate. Even as the child becomes sick with dysentery, he whiles away the hours with elaborate plans while his son humors his need for illusion. This is understandable, though deeply tragic, insomuch as illusion is all the people of the slum can truly subsist upon. Whether the medium involves sex, alcohol, or religion, fallacy is all there is to lubricate the motions people go through when they have long since given up hope of anything but minimal survival.
Where a lesser filmmaker would make such a subject into a finger-wagging exercise into liberal guilt that is hammered into an entertaining mold, Kurosawa remains the unadorned humanist. As such, he allows the characters to speak for themselves, and the emotional impact of their stories is all the more affecting for it.