After Red Beard Kurosawa was offered the chance to direct the Japanese half of the 20th Century Fox produced World War II epic Tora! Tora! Tora!.
After fears of Kurosawa going over budget and the filming schedule going too long, 20th Century Fox fired the director. Rumors of Kurosawa's mental stability were also cited as a reason for 20th Century Fox's decision to fire him.
After the drama of Tora! Tora! Tora!'s production, Kurosawa set out to re-invent himself in a way. The one hurtle that he needed to overcome was financial in nature.
Turning to fellow veteran Japanese directors Kon Ichikawa, Masaki Kobayashi and Keisuke Kinoshita, Kurosawa formed the production company called the Club of the Four Knights.
Dodes'ka-den would be the first and only film they would produce.
The production of Dodes'ka-den stands out for several reasons. Not only was it the first time Kurosawa utilized color film, but it was also his first film with a whole new group of actors.
Kurosawa also defied expectations and finished the film before schedule.
The film, however, was not a success. What followed was undoubtedly the darkest period of Kurosawa's life.
Of Kurosawa's films, Dodes'ka-den is probably the one most devoid of a traditional plot. The film is merely a few days in the lives of the inhabitants of a Japanese junkyard town.
Rokuchan, a mentally challenged boy, dreams of driving the local trolley. He plasters drawings he's made onto the walls of his home and rides his imaginary trolley into the main junkyard area chanting "Dodes'ka-den, Dodes'ka-den" (Clickety-clack).
There we meet a colorful cast of characters, literally. In the center of the town there are the gossiping women. On either side of them is a couple, content on living however they please, even if it means swapping husbands.
In a beat-up car a man and his son imagine their dream home.
An old man offers life lessons to those in need.
A bureaucrat with a nervous tic lives with his overbearing wife.
A young girl lives with her abusive uncle, toiling away working for two while her aunt is in the hospital and her uncle drinks all day.
All of these stories combine to present a sad, infuriating and sometimes even humorous picture of what life is like for the forgotten and poor people living in Japan.
Dodes'ka-den is certainly a departure from the usual Kurosawa film. The Kurosawa film it most resembles would be The Lower Depths. Dodes'ka-den, like The Lower Depths, is a film that is far more concerned with characters than a standard plot.
One might say nothing really happens in Dodes'ka-den. Indeed, we leave the characters seeing them much the same way as when we met them. Despite a couple tragic deaths, the film is merely a window into a few days in the lives of a junkyard town.
Kurosawa's films prior to Dodes'ka-den are rich in characterization. The characters leap off the screen and the actors who portray them often seem to become their characters by the end of the film.
In Dodes'ka-den this feeling is not so easily had. The audience is generally asked to sympathize and relate to the characters in most films, especially those of Kurosawa. We go with Watanabe as he deals with his cancer in Ikiru, we travel with two lowly peasants in The Hidden Fortress, and we seek revenge with Nishi in The Bad Sleep Well.
The issue with Dodes'ka-den is that Kurosawa tries to do too much. He spends so little time with each character that as soon as we begin to relate to one he jumps to the next.
Each character has their own story to tell. And despite the film's 140 minute run-time, we are treated to mere snippets of their lives.
This is but one flaw in an otherwise refreshingly new Kurosawa film.
If one expected to see some trepidation from Kurosawa's first venture into color film, Dodes'ka-den may come as a shock. The director dives into the colors as any natural painter like Kurosawa would.
The film is flooded with bright yellows, reds and blues. Kurosawa displays these colors in the bleakest of worlds.
Equally as impressive as his ability to adapt to shooting in color is the way in which he uses color itself to enhance the story.
The best example of this comes with the story of the man and his son thinking about their dream home.
They dream of a home with vibrant colors. As they speak of the images they want to create Kurosawa cuts to a model of their creation. Showing what characters are thinking about in their minds is a new technique from Kurosawa but it works remarkably well to put the audience in the place of the characters on screen.
As the film goes on the physical condition of the man and his son begins to deteriorate. At the end of the film their health is so bad that the two look like they are completely devoid of color. With their faces now the color of ash, Kurosawa is showing us the link between color and the human soul.
The most heartbreaking scene in the film occurs when the man's boy dies. In one final dream, the man grants his sons wish by creating a large swimming pool in his mind. Kurosawa zooms-out quickly and in an almost seamless transition the junkyard is transformed into a bright, colorful swimming pool.
Another strong example of meaning in Kurosawa's use of color occurs when Katsuko, the girl who works for her uncle, is lying on a bed of colorful flowers which she has made. It is a stunning portrait of innocence. The sense of vulnerability is also heightened by the high angle shot.
The innocence is soon destroyed when her drunk uncle comes in and rapes her. The imagery earlier in the scene makes the act that much more heinous.
The final scene contains one more flourish of color from Kurosawa. The camera pans around Rokuchan's home which is laden with drawings of trolleys. Kurosawa backlights the drawings so their colors come out through the glass.
Despite their living conditions he shows us that dreams are still alive and important.
Kurosawa often contrasts the colorful with the drab and gray. When characters are at their low points he will place them in a backdrop of gray.
Though he would work with color in all of his later films, it is with Dodes'ka-den that he utilizes the power of color to its fullest.
In The Lower Depths, the characters are keenly aware of their situation in life. They know they are the forgotten people and have little or no hope of ever getting out of their particular socio-economic status.
The characters in Dodes'ka-den are the same way. They get by the same way the characters in the earlier film do. Some drink, some laugh and others simply do nothing but waste away.
There is indeed a lot of humor in Dodes'ka-den. The man's nervous tic seems like something out of a Chaplin film and when the old man assists a burglar by giving him money, the humor in the otherwise tragic situation is brought out.
Most of the film is, however, quite depressing. The man who dreams up his house laments to his son about how the Japanese people used to be. One can't help but feel that Kurosawa himself is speaking through this man. He himself must have felt the same way and would probably often escape into dreams himself, a subject he would later explore in his semi-autobiographical film Dreams.
As in The Idiot, Kurosawa holds a strong amount of sympathy for the mentally challenged. Rokuchan, like Kameda, is a victim of the society in which he lives.
Rokuchan is arguably given the more sympathetic ending in Dodes'ka-den. He still has his dreams.
With Rokuchan Kurosawa employs another technique to get the audience to feel what he feels. When Rokuchan is operating his imaginary trolley, Kurosawa inserts into the soundtrack the sounds a real trolley would make.
Again, the effect works extremely well. The sound effects for the imaginary trolley and the images of the man's dreams of his home are really the only two examples of Kurosawa bringing the audience into the minds of the characters.
It comes as no surprise that these characters are really the only ones that a strong connection is felt with. And because their screen time is so limited, the other characters in the film seem to be merely fillers in an otherwise tragic and interesting story.
Apart from the color photography the camerawork is not so different from his previous films. The one major difference is the inclusion of the zoom lens, something never before seen in a Kurosawa film.
The camera explores more space than the previous theater-like Lower Depths, but in each house Kurosawa seldom moves the camera in favor of showcasing the acting.
Despite its lack of a strong plot or action, the characters in Dodes'ka-den are its most endearing quality. Although it is not Kurosawa's strongest work, it is still an excellent example of how the director worked with characterization.
These characters, like those of his other films, seem incredibly real. Because of the verisimilitude in the film, the tragic message does get through.
Life goes on, Kurosawa tells us, but even in lives like these people still have their dreams.