As a major, longtime fan of Akira Kurosawa, I was very excited when Criterion announced it would be finally releasing his fabled "Dodes’ka-den", made in 1970. The film is steeped in lore surrounding his life and work, it being his first film completely shot in color and a reaffirmation of his talents after a lengthy period of creative disappointment. Following the end of the nearly two-year-long production of "Red Beard", "Kurosawa" threw himself into "The Runaway Train", a project that never came into fruition, then "Tora! Tora! Tora!", the infamous Twentieth Century Fox film about the Pearl Harbor attack. Kurosawa was assigned as director of the Japanese segments, but was eventually fired because of his increasingly obsessive work methods which yielded few concrete results. Out of the need to reestablish himself as a director, he formed the Club of the Four Knights with fellow respected filmmakers Kon Ichikawa (The Burmese Harp, Tokyo Olympiad), Keisuke Kinoshita (Twenty-Four Eyes) and Masaki Kobayashi (Harakiri). The group wanted their first film to be a smash hit, and looked to their most successful comrade to provide them with one.
What Kurosawa ended up delivering was "Dodes’ka-den", a film as far from his previous, widely accessible period adventure epics and contemporary thrillers as one can get. Indeed, instead of retreading familiar territory, Kurosawa eagerly explored a fresh new approach to filmmaking. Based on Shugoro Yamamoto’s novel "A Town without Seasons" and set in a dirty, trash-laden slum on the outskirts of Tokyo , "Dodes’ka-den" focuses on a wide variety of extraordinary characters and their hardships, hopes and dreams. While some of the assembled stories are more prominent than others, Kurosawa never spends too much time on any one in particular, constantly shifting attention from one to the next. In this respect, the film is a true ensemble piece, allowing the actors to prove their worth without the hindrance of a star-dominated hierarchy. Some of the many roles include Rokuchan, the simpleminded boy who conducts an imaginary trolley (making the sound from which the film gets its title); Masuo and Hatsu, two comical drinking buddies; Katsuko, a quiet girl who suffers under the thumb of her contemptible uncle; Mr. Shima, a kind gentleman with a limp and facial tic; and a beggar and his son who dream of a fantastic house for themselves.
Just as Jean-Luc Godard did in "A Woman is a Woman" and Federico Fellini in "Juliet of the Spirits", Kurosawa makes the most of his color debut, experimenting with his new toy with the exuberance of a child playing with his first box of crayons. As a result, he makes excellent use of his environment, the grey-toned, urban wasteland often giving way to visually stunning magpie’s nests of assorted junk. Empty containers, scrap metal, plastics, newspapers – nothing is put to waste by the director or his characters who make homes out of what everyone else throws away. Additionally, the film is filled with beautifully vivid costumes, lighting techniques and backdrops depicting the sky, sun and moon that easily qualify as works of art in and of themselves. Through such flourishes, Kurosawa’s training as a painter is evidently put to good use. On the soundtrack, Toru Takemitsu provides a sweetly sentimental (though occasionally eerie) score using, among other instruments, an acoustic guitar, flute and harmonica – a far cry from the doom-laden music he would later provide "Kurosawa" for "Ran".
Sadly, "Dodes’ka-den" didn’t turn out to be quite the hit the Club of Four Knights were looking for. The film did poorly among audiences and critics, causing the company to disband. It is firmly believed that this blow to Kurosawa’s reputation and the recent failures that came before it helped push him to his suicide attempt in December 1971. But despite its place at the center of one of his life’s darkest moments, the film can today be seen as a genuine triumph for him. Along with being the first step in a new artistic direction that would eventually lead to many more great films, it packs a strong emotional punch with numerous memorable, heart-wrenching scenes. Wonderfully unique and imaginative, it should be considered crucial viewing for anyone who seeks to gain a better understanding of Kurosawa.