Sunday, April 12, 2009

Review – Dodes’Ka-den

April 12, 2009

Dodes’Ka-den – Japan, 1970

Akira Kurosawa's 1970 film Dodes’Ka-den begins with a youth man named Rokkuchan (Yoshitaka Zushi) preparing for the long work day ahead of him. Before leaving the house, he joins his mother (Kin Sugai) in front of an altar and begins reciting Buddhist prayers with her. I’m not an expert in Buddhism, but to me, the way these two characters were reciting them seemed angry or tense. Perhaps that is what causes the woman’s son to stop chanting and make an individual prayer to Buddha. His prayer is for his mother to be smarter, a seemingly odd request. He clearly does not consider his mother’s negative emotions to be warranted. A moment later, he announces that he has to go, that he has eight rounds to do. He walks to the door, fastens an imaginary sword or wand to his belt, put on an invisible hat, and bids his mother farewell. He then thoroughly inspects and enters an equally unseen trolley and begins walking along a thin unpaved road, reciting the phrase dodes’ka-den over and over again.

Rokkuchan is just one of the inhabitants of a slum in Japan, many of whose residents have withdrawn from society, fallen on hard times, or become reliant upon alcohol to get through life. The homes that the slum’s residents live in are rusty and run-down, and the paint is fading from many of them. In the center of the slum is a single water fountain, around which several ladies meet every morning and gossip about their neighbors. They rarely have anything nice or sympathetic to say, not even about people in the most unfortunate of situations. Much of their gossip has to do with two women, Tatsu (Hideko Okiyama) and Yoshie (Jitsuko Yoshimura), who are both married to fairly likeable people. In fact, we sense that their marriages would be the stuff of fairy tales if only their husbands weren’t squandering their wages on sake and whiskey. The posse of gossipers also has a problem with Mr. Shima (Junzaburo Ban), a kind, good-natured man whose only fault is that he has a rather serious tick. The ladies like him for the most part; it is his wife (Kiyoke Tange) that they can’t stand, a sentiment that Mrs. Shima’s rather rude, aggressive personality does little to change. And then there’s the mysterious Mr. Hei (Hiroshi Atutagawa) who padlocks his house every time he leaves and whose eyes are described as resembling death itself. The arrival of his long-absent wife Ocho (Tomoko Naraoka) only provides more fodder for the rumor mill. Also inhabiting the slums are a homeless father (Noboru Mitani) and son (Hiroyuki Kawase), a sleazy, lazy man who makes his wife’s niece do all the work around the house while his wife is in the hospital, and Mr. Tanba (Atushi Watanabe), an older man who in another time would have been a community leader or government representative.

To watch Mr. Tanba is to see one of the purest examples of grace and understanding in film, for while others fixate on a person’s faults and peculiarities, Mr. Tanba is understanding and accepting of the plights that people find themselves in, both real and imaginary. When he interacts with Rokkuchan, he speaks to him as if Rokkuchan is indeed a trolley operator. When he sees an intoxicated man violently swinging a sword, he approaches him and offers to switch places with him, reasoning that the man’s arm must be tired. Later, in one of the film’s more emotional scenes, a man confides in Mr. Tanba that he wishes to end his life. Mr. Tanba does not attempt to explain the value of living or criticize the man for having such thoughts. He just listens to the man’s tragic tale and offers him a secret, quick drink that will supposedly end the man’s suffering. Then he gently elicits a reason that the man might want to live. Mr. Tanba’s counterpart is the beggar’s son. Homeless and given the responsibility of begging for food for him and his dad, he never blames or ridicules the defeated man that is his father. His father, like Rokkuchan, has withdrawn from both society and reality. His conversations with his son often involve the construction of an imaginary house, which he is building in his mind piece by piece and seems to believe his son capable of seeing. His son does nothing to dispel this idea.

The slum in Dodes’Ka-den is a combination of development and poverty, of conscientious people and those can be particularly cruel, of those who delight in the rumor and those who seek to discover the truth. However, what I will remember most from it is its sweet, sometimes tragic tales of love – the man raising five children that are not his own, the young girl hoping to be rescued by the kind sake deliverer, and the betrayed husband unable to completely forgive the woman who wronged him. These stories do not all end happily, but they are equally powerful. After watching the film, I couldn’t help but recall the words of the beggar: “We mustn’t cling to our culture and characteristics if we become weak and lose endurance as a result.” The beggar had been talking about houses, but his sentiments could easily be referring to the supposed cultural importance of drinking after work, spreading rumors and innuendoes, and doing one’s utmost to preserve one’s honor despite the personal toll that doing so often exacts. In that one line, Kurosawa has provided us with a lens through which to view the events that unfold in the film. Perhaps people have to be able to let go of what they think they are in order to truly reach their potential in life and love. (on DVD from the Criterion Collection)

3 and a half stars

*Dodes'Ka-den is in Japanese with English subtitles.

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