Dodes’ka-den (どですかでん, Akira Kurosawa, 1970)

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.

Tomodachi (ともだち, Yukihiro Sawada, 1974)

As the Japanese studio system began to implode in the late 1960s, Nikkatsu which had specialised in youth cinema, pivoted towards softcore pornography rebranding itself as Nikkatsu Roman Porno. At the same time, however, they also launched an unexpected sideline of family films with strong educational aims under the Nikkatsu Children’s Films banner. Selected by the Ministry of Education and recommended by various educational and parent and teacher associations, the second feature put out under the label, 1974’s Tomodachi (ともだち), is in its own way instructional with a strong anti-bullying theme but also has something to say about the literal pollution of the contemporary society. 

As such, the film revolves around the originally unsympathetic hero, Shinta (Hitoshi Abe), who openly bullies a girl in his class by kicking a football at her because she alone has been excused the after school duty of sweeping the school yard. Having transferred from rural Tohoko, Yoshiko (Noriko Suzuki) has developed serious asthma from living in the centre of industrial Kawasaki and has been instructed to avoid physical exertion or activities which might cause her to breath in additional dust and smoke. Shinta and his friends are however entirely insensitive, literally surrounding Yoshiko while they hound her with questions insisting she’s not really “ill” and merely shirking her duty. When the teacher tries to explain to them that Yoshiko has been excused because it would be bad for her heath to be sweeping dust, Shinta and his friends all immediately claim to be ill too, fake coughing and wheezing despite having just been playing football rather than doing their after school chores like the other kids. 

What doesn’t occur to Shinta is the loneliness, isolation, and embarrassment Yoshiko must feel on being singled out because of her illness. Rather poignantly, the school nurse and others describe how cheerful and friendly Yoshiko was when she first arrived only to reflect on how depressed and withdrawn she’s since become. This is partly as Shinta later learns because her classmates rejected her once she became ill. Asthma is obviously not a contagious disease, yet many of the other parents stopped their kids playing with her because of the stigma surrounding any kind of “illness” while simulataneously unwilling to bear the responsibility of needing to care for her if she should undergo an asthma attack while in their home or under their care fearing they would then suffer a reputational loss if they failed to treat her properly. 

For his part, Shinta is intensely resentful when the teacher sits him next to Yoshiko in the hope that his cheerfulness will help bring her out of her shell. Exclaiming that he hates sick people and thinks that Yoshiko is boring and creepy because she doesn’t really say anything, he begins to have second thoughts when the teacher implores him to help “as a man” suddenly discovering a sense of honour and justice that he doesn’t want to let down. His first action however is to continue kicking footballs at her, but strangely it works rather well providing a physical activity which is compatible with her asthma in not needing to move around while allowing her to feel part of the game. As he gets to know her more, Shinta comes to sympathise with his new friend and is angry with the other kids who reject her but discovers that his own parents are not much different refusing him permission to invite Yoshiko over on talking to other parents at the PTA in part because they run a bento store and are nervous of coming under suspicion if anyone notices a girl with a heavy cough coming and going and questions their hygiene practices. 

Shinta does, however, visit her small apartment which is unfortunately right behind a dusty construction site. As she explains, Yoshiko’s parents were part of a new agricultural drive which later failed and left them with massive debts which is why they had to leave the country to work in a factory in Kawasaki. As her parents often work late shifts for the extra money, she has to look after not only herself but her younger brother with only a pet squirrel for company. Constant references are made to other children having to change schools because their parents moved into a company dorm, while the poor quality of the air is repeatedly given as the cause of Yoshiko’s illness literally choked by the thoughtless post-war economic drive that continues to disrupt not only family lives but the local environment, Shinta also revealing that his parents used to farm seaweed but were forced to stop because of industrial pollution in local rivers. 

This destructive industry also creates unintended divisions among the children along class lines between those whose parents work manual jobs in the factories and those whose families are wealthier and involved in white collar work. The ring leader of the girls who reject Yoshiko, Ayako (Masayo Koga) is the daughter of a wealthy conservative family living in a large house with a mother (Yoshie Kitsuta) who wears kimono. When Ayako shuns her the other girls follow, Yoshiko inviting them to her birthday party only to discover them all together eating cake at Ayako’s house instead. She’d invited them partly out of worry that they were offended she hadn’t invited them to her small apartment, only then realising that they rejected her because of the stigma towards her illness leaving her feeling hopeless and dejected. As Shinta later points out, this kind of emotional pain negatively impacts her medical condition coming to despise the adult world describing his father as the worst in his class for his insistence that he should accept the way the world works rather than idealistically trying to help his new friend. 

The message of the film, however, is that it’s wrong to leave people out and that children in particular should always attempt to friendly with each other. Developing appendicitis, Shinta comes to a new appreciation of how difficult it can be being ill while his mother too starts to regret her decision finally inviting Yoshiko to come and visit them at their home after spotting her sadly walking around outside uncertain if it’s alright to come and visit Shinta on his sickbed. Shinta’s two best friends had also been not entirely supportive of his decision to bring Yoshiko into their group, referring to her as “goldfish poo” in her tendency to trail along behind them, though partly out of jealousy along with the natural awkwardness of a girl suddenly being introduced into a previously all male club but even they eventually come round and decide to reaffirm their friendship. Despite this rosy conclusion in which the other children are convinced to abandon their unfair prejudices and become friends with each other, the eventual conclusion seems rather cruel if returning to the minor theme of the destructive effects of increasing industrialisation even as Shinta’s father is also reminded of the importance of friendship in stating an intention to attend his own primary school reunion. A touching coming-of-age tale, Tomodachi puts its young hero through the emotional wringer but also allows him to discover a strong sense of justice and empathy towards those rejected by their society. 


Manhunt (君よ憤怒の河を渉れ, Junya Sato, 1976)

manhunt 1976 posterMost people, when faced with being framed for a crime they did not commit, become indignant, loudly shouting their innocence to the rooftops and decrying injustice. Prosecutor Morioka (Ken Takakura) reacts differently – could he really be a master criminal and have forgotten all about it? Does he have an evil twin? Is he committing crimes in his sleep? The answer to all of these questions is “no”, but Morioka will have to go on a long, perilous journey in which he pilots his first solo aeroplane flight, fights bears, and escapes a citywide police net via horse, in order to find out. Junya Sato’s adaptation of the Juko Nishimura novel Manhunt (君よ憤怒の河を渉れ, Kimi yo Fundo no Kawa o Watare, AKA Dangerous Chase, Hot Pursuit) is a classic wrong man thriller though it has to be said thrills are a little thin on the ground.

Morioka’s very bad day begins with a woman (Hiroko Isayama) pointing at him and screaming, clutching the arm of a policeman and insisting that Morioka is the man who burgled her a few nights ago and stole her diamond engagement ring. Morioka is very confused but goes calmly to the police station before asking to see an officer he knows, Yamura (Yoshio Harada). Unfortunately, at the police station things only get worse as they dig up another witness (Kunie Tanaka) who says Morioka mugged him in the street for his camera. Beginning to doubt his sanity Morioka is sure things will be sorted out when they search his apartment, only when they get there they do indeed find a camera, the ring hidden in his fish tank, and a whole lot of dodgy money. Realising the game is up and that his prosecutor buddies aren’t interested in helping him, Morioka takes to the road to clear his name, finding himself increasingly compromised every step of the way.

This being Japan Morioka’s options for disappearing are limited – it’s not as if he can dye his hair or radically change his appearance, he’ll have to make do with sunshades and burying his face in the collar of his mac. Looking askance at policemen and trying to avoid people reading newspapers, he tries to investigate his case beginning with his accusers who, predictably, are not quite who they seemed to be. When one of them ends up dead Morioka can add murder suspect to his wanted card but at least he correctly figures out that this all goes back to one particular case his boss was very keen to rule suicide but Morioka was pretty sure wasn’t.

During his quest Morioka picks up an ally – Mayumi (Ryoko Nakano), the daughter of a wealthy horse trader with political ambitions whom he saves during a random bear attack. Mayumi falls instantly in love with him and despite the best efforts of one of her father’s underlings determines to help him clear his name. Morioka is an honest sort of guy but does also pick up another girl in the city (a cameo appearance by Mitsuko Baisho) who rescues him and takes him home to recuperate from an illness. Much to her disappointment he only has eyes for Mayumi who unexpectedly saves the day thanks to her herd of horses, not to mention her father’s “kind offer” of a light aircraft which Morioka will have to learn to pilot “on the fly”.

Eventually Morioka gets himself confined to a dodgy mental hospital to find the final clue during which time he uncovers a corporate conspiracy to manufacture drugs which turn people into living zombies, all their will power removed and compliance to authority upped. Rather than a dig at corporate cultism, enforced conformity, and conspiratorial manipulation, the Big Pharma angle is a just a plot device which provides the catalyst for Morioka’s final realisations – that having experienced life on the run he can never return to the side of authority. For him, the law is now an irrelevance which fails to protect its people and the “hunted” are in a much stronger position than the “hunters”. Accepting his own complicity in the adventure he’s just had, he willingly submits himself to “justice” for the rules he broke as a man on the run but it looks like those sunshades, the anonymous mac, and the beautiful and loyal Mayumi are about to become permanent fixtures in his impermanent life.


The Catch (魚影の群れ, Shinji Somai, 1983)

the-catchSome men become their work, the quest for success consumes them to the extent that there is barely anything left other than the chase. The Catch (魚影の群れ, Gyoei no Mure), Shinji Somai’s 1983 opus of fishermen at home on the waves and at sea on land is a complex examination of masculinity but also of fatherhood in a rapidly declining world filled with arcane ritual and ancient thought.

Fusajiro (Ken Ogata) is a middle aged man who looks old for his years. Man and boy he’s spent his life at sea, hunting down the elusive tuna fish which can be sold for vast amounts of money in the rare event that one is actually caught. This “first summer” as the title card refers to it, marks a change in his life as the daughter he’s been raising alone since his wife left him many years ago, Tokiko (Masako Natsume), has found a man she wants to marry. Her boyfriend, Shunichi (Koichi Sato), owns a coffee shop in town and Fusajiro has his doubts about a city boy marrying into a fisherman’s family. However, Shunichi isn’t just interested in Tokiko, he wants to set sail too. Though originally reluctant, Fusajiro eventually agrees to take Shunichi as a kind of apprentice but is dismayed when he gets seasick and seems to have no hint of a fisherman’s instinct.

Fusajiro is a legend among his peers – a big man of the sea, a true sailor and top hunter. He’s the one people turn to whenever anything goes wrong on the waves. However, he’s also a gruff man who speaks little and seems to prefer his own company.  In the rare event that he is speaking, it’s generally about tuna. When Shunichi first meets Fusajiro he remarks that he knew it must be him because he “smells of the sea”.

A later scene sees Fusajiro catch sight of a woman caught in the rain who immediately starts running away from him. Chasing her  just like one of his ever elusive tuna he eventually pins the woman down and takes her back to his boat to complete his conquest. The woman turns out to be his ex-wife, who left him precisely because of this violent behaviour. After momentarily considering returning to him, she realises that he hasn’t changed and accuses him of being unable to distinguish people from fish – he hooks them, reels them in, and if they don’t come willingly he hits them until they do so he can keep them with him. This overriding obsession with domination also costs Fusajiro his daughter when Shunichi is gravely injured on the boat and Fusajiro delays returning to port until he’s secured the tuna he was chasing at the time. Shunichi’s blood and the fish’s mingle together on the deck, one indistinguishable from the other, both victims of Fusajiro’s need to reign supreme over man and fish alike.

Fusajiro tried to warn Tokiko not to marry a fisherman, it would only make her miserable. Shunichi is warned that a fisherman’s life is a difficult one and the seas in this area less forgiving than most, but his mind is made up. Finally acquiring his own boat after selling his cafe, Shunichi, just like Fusajiro, starts to fall under the fisherman’s curse – endlessly chasing, living only for the catch. Unlike Fusajiro, however, Shunichi has little instinct for life at sea and fails to bring home his prey. Little by little, the mounting failures eat away at his self esteem as he feels belittled and humiliated in front of the other sailors culminating in an attempt to reinforce his manhood by raping his own wife. These men are little better than animals, consumed by conquest, permanently chasing at sea and on land. To be defeated, is to be destroyed.

Somai never shies away from the grimness and brutality of the work at hand. Ogata catches and spears these magnificent fish for real and the unfortunate creatures are then carved up right on the dockside before our very eyes. As we’re constantly reminded, physical strength is what matters for a fisherman and Fusajiro is a strong man, duelling with the tuna fish and straining to hold the line with all his might. Yet he’s getting old, his body is failing and like an aged toreador in the ring, his victory is no longer assured. The Japanese title of the film which translates as crowds of shadows of solitary fish expresses his nature more clearly, his fate and the tuna’s are the same – a lonely battle to the death. Unable to forge real human connections on land Fusajiro and his ilk are doomed to live out their days alone upon the sea wreaking only misery for those left behind on the shore.


Original trailer (No subtitles, graphic scenes of animal cruelty)

If You Were Young: Rage (君が若者なら, Kinji Fukasaku, 1970)

51AM0Z0Z2cLFor 1970’s If You We’re Young: Rage (君が若者なら, Kimi ga Wakamono Nara), Fukasaku returns to his most prominent theme – disaffected youth and the lack of opportunities afforded to disadvantaged youngsters during the otherwise booming post-war era. Like the more realistic gangster epics that were to come, Fukasaku laments the generation who’ve been sold an unattainable dream – come to the city, work hard, make a decent life for yourself. Only what the young men find here is overwork, exploitation and a considerably decreased likelihood of being able to achieve all they’ve been promised.

Our story revolves around five young men who meet whilst working at a factory which later goes bust. The central pair, Kikuo and Asao have been friends since childhood. Both of their fathers were killed in mining accidents and the boys are part of the “golden egg” movement bringing in workers from the rural towns to increase prosperity in the capital. The other three are a fisherman’s son, Kiyoshi, a boxing enthusiast Ryuji and fifth wheel Ichiro. After a short spell in gaol, the guys hatch on the idea of clubbing together to buy a dumper truck and start a business of their own. However, by the time they’ve actually got the truck one of them’s in prison, one pulls out because of a shotgun marriage and the other is killed in a labour dispute. Asao and Kikuo get on with living the dream and are doing pretty well with the truck until their imprisoned friend decides to escape and ruins all of their lives in the process.

Almost proto-punk in tone, If You Were Young: Rage takes a long hard look at the put upon masses who rebuilt Japan but were left with little in return. These five guys left their small towns for the big city promised high wages, access to education and a path to a better life but largely what they found was cold rooms and overwork. There are frequent strike motions in the film as the construction and factory workers attempt to insist on better pay and conditions but are constantly defeated by the white collar bosses who can just bus in even more desperate young men who will agree to cross the picket line because they have no other choice. Our central five now have a dream and something to work towards, their truck isn’t just “a truck” – it’s a hundred trucks somewhere down the line and a symbol of the path to prosperity.

However, at the end of the film all of their dreams have been shattered. Some of this is not their fault, merely the vicissitudes of fate and changing times, some of it is down to poor choices but largely the odds were always stacked against them because the world is unfair. Kiyoshi lies all the time because he’s scared of pretty much everything, possibly because of an abusive (though perhaps not uncommon) upbringing. His selfishness and, ultimately, cowardice is about to mess things up for everyone else and there are somethings you just can’t come back from. Like many of Fukasaku’s heroes, what Asao dreams of is the friendship he found when the five guys were all together and working as a team. He wants to go back to that time of perpetual hope and friendship rather than live in this lonely prosperity.

Fukasaku veers between quirky new wave style optimism and the extreme pessimism of his general world view. The film is bright and colourful for the majority of its running time with memory and fantasy often relegated to black and white. He uses his usual freeze frames, often in times of violence, hand held cameras and dynamic framing to achieve his youthful, freewheeling atmosphere but as usual there’s a kind of desperation lurking in the background. As might be expected, the ending is all flames and ashes – youth lies ruined, dreams shattered, and the possibility of moving on seems woefully far off. Another characteristically caustic look at modern youth from Fukasaku, this more indie effort is one of his most searing and bears out his rather bleak prognosis for the future of his nation.


If You Were Young: Rage is available with English subtitles on R1 US DVD from Homevision and was previously released as part of the Fukasaku Trilogy (alongside Blackmail is My Life and Black Rose Mansion) by Tartan in the UK.