Akira Kurosawa is held in such nearly universal high esteem that it is almost impossible to believe that there was a time when it looked like his career was over and that his moment had long since passed. In the early to mid-1960’s, he directed some of his most beloved films: The Bad Sleep Well, Yojimbo, Sanjuro, High and Low, and Red Beard. But even as these films were released to widespread critical and popular acclaim, the film world was changing dramatically, both on the Japanese scene and internationally. In Japan, the ‘60’s saw the rise of New Wave directors like Nagisa Oshima and Shohei Imamura, who had little patience for the humanism and classicism of older directors like Kurosawa (and similar trends were afoot in France and Italy and elsewhere). The films of the New Wave were gritty, violent, alienating, and overtly political. Although Kurosawa and Oshima were both communists (or, if Oshima was not a communist, he was at least a radical leftist), Kurosawa would never explicitly foreground a political agenda in the way that Oshima does in films like Death by Hanging or The Man Who Left His Will on Film.
Following the completion of Red Beard in 1966, Kurosawa began a new stage in his career. He had a falling out with long-time collaborator Toshiro Mifune, with whom he would never work again. He also decided that for his next film, he would work in color for the first time. (It’s always interesting to see what great directors make of their first color films). After a period of long gestation, Kurosawa returned in 1970 with Dodes’ka-den. The film was conceived in collaboration with fellow filmmakers Keisuke Kinoshita, Kon Ichikawa, and Masaki Kobayashi, all giants of the golden age of Japanese cinema of the ‘50’s and ‘60’s, and all of whom were marginalized by the New Wave. Set in a community of social outcasts who have erected a shantytown within a Tokyo junk yard, Dodes’ka-den presents a kaleidoscopic picture of life on the margins, following alcoholics, the chronically unemployed, the physically and mentally handicapped, and other misfits as they experience the small victories and often bigger tragedies of their day-to-day lives. This is largely new subject matter for Kurosawa, who had built his reputation on samurai epics (Seven Samurai, The Hidden Fortress) and masterful crime films (Stray Dog, High and Low). Although he had treated the theme of poverty before (most extensively in Drunken Angel and especially in his adaptation of Gorky’s The Lower Depths), the degree of deprivation and despair on display in Dodes’ka-den is without precedent in his oeuvre.
Two of Kurosawa's slum-dwellers.
Now, having said all this, it is noteworthy that Dodes’ka-den is not a particularly depressing movie. First off, it is a work of great visual beauty. Kurosawa’s compositions are as elegant and striking as ever, and his use of dazzling primary colors is reminiscent of Godard’s in films like Pierrot le Fou and Made in USA. Secondly, Kurosawa, even at his darkest, always infuses his films with compassion and hope. And this is something that you won’t find in the New Wavers. In the films of Oshima and Imamura—and both of them have depicted life in the slums—hope is a bourgeois vice. They approach their subject matter with viciousness and a sense of the grotesque unredeemed by any trace of warmth or any sense of indulgence for human frailty. This is why Kurosawa is a humanist and Oshima, even when he’s advocating for the persecuted and the marginalized, is not.
So, what was the reaction to Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den? Near universal revulsion and contempt. Critics were baffled and audiences hated it (or at least, the few people who actually saw it hated it). In modern parlance, it tanked at the box office. Kurosawa, the Japanese critics said, was finished. He was out of his depth. Film had changed and Kurosawa had failed to change with it. And most troublingly, the producers who put up the money for these things agreed with them, and Kurosawa found himself, really for the first time in his directorial career, struggling to raise funds to make more films. He fell into despair. He attempted to commit suicide by slashing his arms (his brother had committed suicide in the 1930’s when the advent of sound films rendered silent film narrators like him obsolete). Luckily he survived and in 1975 he made something of a comeback with the Soviet film Dersu Uzala. And in 1980, with financial assistance from George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola, he returned to the samurai epic, the genre that made him famous, with Kagemusha. In 1985 he made another samurai epic, Ran, an adaptation of King Lear which proved to be one of his greatest masterpieces. He then made several smaller films as his health declined and he died in 1998.
So Dodes’ka-den wasn’t the end of him, but it’s lamentable that anyone ever thought it was. Criterion released it on Region 1 DVD a few years ago and the time is now ripe for a critical re-evaluation of this strange and beautiful work which marks a transitional period in Kurosawa’s career but which hardly signals the decline in quality that reviewers perceived upon its initial release. It is just as shocking and new and distinctly contemporary as anything that Oshima and Imamura and the other New Wavers came out with.