If I were living like any of the people of the Tokyo slums in Akira Kurosawa's first colour film, Dodes'ka-den, like them, I'd be living in illusion and imagination to counter the squalid conditions. Living for them, but in my case, it'd be drowning. That's the premise of this movie, a testament to the human spirit and how it keeps on going despite adversity.
There's no plot in this film, as it tells of the various people living in the slums, some in coloured tin corrugated roofs, others in dirty, dingy travesties of huts, and in the case of an oddball boy who pretends he's a streetcar conductor and spends all day shuffling to who knows where. He goes through the motions, putting on his cap, pushing the buttons, pulling levers, and muttering the words "Dodes'ka-den." Which leads to the title. It's a Japanese onomatopoeia for the sound a train makes on the tracks. Roughly translated, it's like clackety-clack. The smaller kids who see him throw pebbles at him and cry out "trolley crazy."
My favourite characters are the bedraggled derelict and his young son who live in a beaten up, wheelless VW bug. The son goes out at night and gets scraps from a friendly sushi shop man. During the day, the father discusses their dream house, and we see his designs, from the gate, fence, and house, come alive, with dramatic sounds and colour. He must have been an architect or designer, and he escapes his squalid condition by envisioning a dreamhouse. There's a vivid example of colour cinematography at work, when standing under glaring yellow sky, we see the eerie blue light cast on him and his son, ill from food poisoning.
The drunken buddies who swap wives are two of the most colourful, but there's an interesting theme. Both couples are colour coordinated, clothes, house, even wash basins. And at times, they swap wives. The yellow husband is so drunk, he stays at his buddy's red house and with his wife, while his buddy goes to his house. Wonder how many bottles of sake they drink after work. But the wifeswapping has dual meaning, an escape from the ordinary, but also a lack of symmetry that is restored when both yellow-coded husband and wife are reunited and the same with the red-coded couple.
Then there's Tamba, the druggist, a man in his seventies or early eighties who's a wise, sage, and compassionate character. The way he defuses a violent sword-wielding drunk is amazing! I won't get into specifics but he shames the drunk into going to bed. He also helps a man wanting to commit suicide a reason to go on living. He seems to represent the face of an older and uncomplicated Japan, experienced by the past, living as he can in the present.
Hei is the most haunting, and his eyes are that of a dead man. He never says a word in the movie, and it's clear that he has been deeply traumatized by something in his past, which we learn later. It's as if his soul has been drained. A character looks at a tree and wonders what kind of tree it is, before saying "it's no longer a tree when it's dead." Substitute man for tree and we get Hei. Oh, and me as well.
Shima is a salaryman who's nice enough, but he has a funny walk nearly like the Monty Python's Ministry of Silly Walks man and a facial tic that drives him into a brief fit, complete with snorting. The tic represents that there's more to a person than a mere flaw.
Some of the info we get from the gossiping circle of women who spend the day doing the laundry in the slum square, including a sensuous long-haired woman who seems to know it all, and witnessing the parade of life.
This was Kurosawa's first of seven colour films and its failure culminated in him attempting suicide. Understandable, as despite its being panned, it's actually a sober, at times depressing, but ultimately hopeful look at people. Very underrated film that's deeply in need of reappraisal.