Dodes'ka-Den Movie Review
Dodes'ka-den certainly isn't like any Kurosawa film I've ever witnessed. A junkyard shanty-town of misfits, perverts, gossips, and criminals is its setting... and yet we begin on a note of gleeful innocence. Adrift in a dream life that casts him as a streetcar operator, a young mentally-retarded man (Yoshitaka Zuxhi) prepares his make-believe trolley for its short journey through the slums, all the while repeating the word "dodes'ka-den" which translates, literally, to "clickety-clack." The young man seems to be the central figure and audience proxy for the five or six stories that litter Kurosawa's dire landscape and, fittingly, as the film progresses we see less and less of him.
As with all of Kurosawa's work, especially when invoking post-war themes, the film is mainly concerned with how reality and fantasy merge in day-to-day life. For several of the slumland's inhabitants, it's a taste of the drink that helps blend the worlds together but the film's most striking story deals with a dry and far more nightmarish plunge into one's dream world. A poverty-stricken father and son, living out of a dilapidated car, spend their days building their dream house in the father's head. Obsessed with getting the wall color and the pool dimensions just right, the father ignores his son's minor concerns, notably a friendly cook's instructions to cook a piece of salt-and-vinegar fish to eat.
Though it also deals in tales of incest, swinging, adultery, and euthanasia, Dodes'ka-den's tone is ultimately more sober and cynical than sentimental and cathartic, a pre-cursor to the bleak, destitute cosmos of Harmony Korine and Larry Clarke. In Kurosawa's makeshift town, the bad guys get away or are allowed to return to their little fantasies while youth and innocence are decimated. Shot primarily by Kurosawa's regular cinematographer Takao Saitô, Dodes'ka-den lacks the nuance and the sweep of the master's best work, but the story itself seems to call for a lighter hand.
Kurosawa was never one for buoyant optimism but after what is, overall, a savage, if not pragmatic, tour through the wrecked tin houses of Japan's indigent, he offers a final measure of stunned joy from a dollop of magical realism. The mother of the young retarded man goes inside for the night, her house plastered with drawings and interpretations of her son's imaginary streetcar. Suddenly, the soundtrack bursts awake with the sound of a small train, and the house is lit up by what looks like the headlights of a trolley. The small shack becomes bathed in the colors of the drawings, as if it were the last magic lantern theater in Japan. The hell he didn't know how to use color.