Dodes’ka-den (1970) one of Akira Kurosawa’s most endearing films

The boy conductor, riding around the junkyard on his imaginary train, is the centerpiece to all the pains, grief, and highs of living in poverty. Kurosawa shows this world in wonderfully vivid colors, painting the unfortunate with humanity and grace, while also showing the dark side. The entire ensemble delivers idiosyncratic performances and helps build the culture and ideologies of this place. One of Kurosawa’s most original and endearing films.

Kurosawa observes poverty partially in the abstract and other times with realism, not directly addressing the sadness of this life, but treating the people living in this populated garbage pile as human with the same aspirations, manners, and intellect as anyone else. Even our dear friend the conductor, Roku (Yoshitaka Zushi), shows a distinct knowledge in the procedure of conducting to an obsessively detailed degree. Dodes’ka-den doesn’t demean the people, but sees their eccentricities as brilliant obscurities that make them unique. This stems to all the overlapping vignettes, as each story contains this overarching theme and general enthusiasm amid the circumstances. It’s quite touching in this exploration and each character archetype here is different from the next but present a reason for them being beholden to the shanty town lifestyle. 

As for Kurosawa’s craft, it’s an immaculate piece of work akin to the most colorful films in his career. Once Kurosawa got to crafting color films, he went absolutely off and showed his visual style matches perfectly with vivid color palettes. Dodes’ka-den, much like Ran (1985), and Kagemusha (1980), used colors to express so much within the narrative. Dodes’ka-den isn’t a samurai film either, so the color palette takes on a new meaning in the Kurosawa visual language. The production design speaks to the optimism in the most pessimistic of settings and has a sense of individuality. Both the interior and exterior compositions breathe idiosyncrasies into the mise-en-scene and invite engagement into the worldbuilding. We learn a great deal about the characters and their situation through the setting. For example, Roku’s house is wallpapered with crayon drawings of trains or the sickly interior decorator who in reality is a beggar with his son. We learn about their passions and dreams through these details.

On top of the production design, the gorgeous Yasumichi Fukuzawa and Takao Saitô cinematography, and Reiko Kaneko’s editing that brings all these vignettes together. It’s the casting of each role, all filling into the characters and enlivening the shanty town. Add on the Tōru Takemitsu original score that provides a sense of enthusiasm into the violin sounds and implies a lovely spirit embedded in us all. It’s such a bright film with a smiling disposition under any circumstance.

It’s not one of Kurosawa’s best, but as we later see with Dreams (1990), he’s well versed in the anthology structure of storytelling. In his long career, this could potentially be considered his most endearing picture. It’s an excellent experience and one that feels universal.


★★★★½/ Out of 5★s (92)

(94-91-92-90-96-88-94-94-93-85-94-91-95-93: 92)

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