Akira Kurosawa’s dreamlike ensemble piece Dodes’ka-den is akin to an abstract painting, in that different viewers will interpret the piece in different ways. Rather than delivering one overarching storyline, as was the norm in most of Kurosawa’s films prior to and following this one, Dodes-ka’den uses a single location to connect various subplots and vignettes. Although most of the individual narrative elements are coherent and linear, the cumulative effect of Dodes’ka-den is largely experiential. However, because the film is so long, running nearly two and a half hours, and because the pacing is so meditative, not everyone will have the patience to accompany Kurosawa for the whole journey. Furthermore, the episodic storytelling style creates an inevitable problem: Some threads in this tapestry are more interesting than others, which means that whole stretches of the picture feel like needless intrusions. That said, small rewards await those who accept this film on its offbeat terms, and it’s possible to simply revel in Kurosawa’s compassion and creativity without trying to grasp the big picture that he paints with Dodes’ka-den.
The setting is a massive trash heap, where dozens of people have created a shantytown rife with the same sorts of gossip and interconnected relationships and melodrama found in any other human community. Given the setting, obviously all of the characters face horrific challenges. Beyond the shared hardship of poverty, some citizens suffer from mental and physical illness, while others endure alcoholism. In one of the film’s typically poetic flourishes, Kurosawa introduces viewers to the world of the trash heap by showing the resident who seems most content with his life. He’s a mentally challenged young man who believes that he has a job operating a train, so every day, he wakes up and climbs into his imaginary trolley, then pantomimes driving the vehicle throughout the trash heap while making sound effects with his voice. (The film’s title stems from the noise he makes when imitating the chugging of a train engine.) Since this young man lives inside the special world of his imagination, he’s insulated from the suffering that surrounds him.
An older man, who used to be a business executive but tragically lost his family, pleads with the trash heap’s resident doctor for poison with which to kill himself. A sensitive young woman tries to break through the emotional barriers of a mystery man so disconnected from everyone else that he seems like a zombie. An imaginative father regales his young son with stories about the great house he’s going to build for them, even as they both succumb to disease. And so on.
Kurosawa weaves together the lives of more than a dozen characters, sometimes using minimalistic techniques (conveying relationships through facial expressions and physical proximity), and sometimes using copious amounts of verbiage. Even the notion of what’s meant to be real and what’s meant to be metaphorically representative is fluid. In the father/son storyline, for instance, Kurosawa uses stylized makeup and painted backdrops to create surreal effects, whereas most of the film is realistic. Toro Takemitsu’s musical score is similarly eclectic, ranging from cutesy and sentimental to ethereal and evocative.
There is, in fact, a great sense of experimentation flowing through Dodes’ka-den, Kurosawa’s first film in color. Certain scenes rely so heavily on shadows that they would have been just as effective in black and white, but the boldest stuff—notably the father/son scenes—anticipates the masterful use of color that distinguished Kurosawa’s films of the ’80s and ’90s. Dodes’ka-den is more uneven than frustrating, for while the picture often feels rudderless, much of what it contains is intimate and touching. There’s also something eerie about watching the suicide storyline, since Kurosawa attempted to take his own life following the commercial failure of this picture. For all its peculiarities, Dodes’ka-den comes across as a deeply personal expression by one of the cinema’s true giants.