By the late 1960s, Akira Kurosawa was in the midst of a creative crisis having spent two years working on the Japanese segments of the Hollywood war film Tora! Tora! Tora before he was eventually let go by the parsimonious US producers who feared he was spending too much money and making too little progress. Meanwhile, the studio system which had supported his career was collapsing and could no longer offer the kinds of budgets necessary for his personal brand of epic cinema. Teaming up with Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, and Keisuke Kinoshita, he formed the Club of the Four Knights production company but the first and only film they produced, Dodes’kaden (どですかでん), was not perhaps the kind of film many were expecting.
Inspired by a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto, the film like The Lower Depths focuses on a small community living in a slum only in this case on the edge of the modern city. Shot in classical 4:3, it was also Kurosawa’s first foray into colour and makes the most of his painterly eye with its surrealist backdrops and exaggerated sunsets. Once again there is the feeling that these people are already dead or trapped in a kind of purgatory unable to escape their desperate suffering, the slum as much of a mindset as a physical place. “Life is nothing but pain to me” one man claims, stating his hope that he die as quickly as possible while relating the sad story of his life: falling into depression when his sons were killed in the war and losing his wife, business, and finally home to the Tokyo air raids. Yet he is reminded that his family live on in him as long as he does and to kill himself is to kill them too, rediscovering a desire to survive even in his suffering.
Another man, Hei (Hiroshi Akutagawa), dresses in a soldier’s uniform and wanders around like a zombie with, as one person puts it, the eyes of a dead man. Later a woman comes to find him, but he is seemingly unable to reawaken himself and move on from his trauma, now numbed to life, an already spent force. A young woman, Katsuko (Tomoko Yamazaki), is little different. Never speaking she has been raised by her uncle who begins sexually abusing her while her aunt is in hospital. She says that she wants to die, stabbing the only boy who showed her kindness because she feared he’d forget her.
These people have largely been forgotten, living almost in another era and entirely cut off from mainstream society in a kind of etherial purgatory. Like the residents of The Lower Depths, a degree of fantasy is necessary for their survival a case in point being that of a beggar and his son who live an abandoned car and fantasise about the kind of house they’d build, a vast modernist building in white with a swimming pool. Like Katsuko, the boy is let down by his father who remains the car and sends him out to beg for food, telling him off when he lights a fire to boil fish as the man at the sushi shop had told him to do insisting, with disastrous results, that as it’s pickled it doesn’t need to be cooked. The furthest out of the residents, the pair have an almost grotesque appearance, their faces tinged with a morbid green.
But then the couples living at the centre seemed to have found an antidote to despair in a surreal process of wife swapping now unable to remember whose husband is whose despite being neatly colour coded in matching outfits. A man with a nervous tic defends his grumpy yet fiercely loyal wife, and another man raises several children who may not be biologically his but are loved all the same. The old man who acts as a kind of confidant giving out advice and settling disputes through benevolent trickery has evidently learned how to live in this world and gets by as best he can while the son of the melancholy woman who runs the tempura stall drives an imaginary train through the slum the rhythm of which gives the film its name in its slow and certain progress towards nowhere at all. Heartbreakingly there are moments where the young man can hear the train in the distance, but it remains forever out of reach. Dodes’kaden didn’t do very well at the box office or with critics, its lack of success of cited as a factor in Kurosawa’s attempt to take his own life the following year, yet had perhaps set him on a new artistic course of colour and light which would define the further direction of his later career.
Dodes’ka-den screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 15th & 16th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.