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The Criterion Collection presents
Dodes'ka-den (1970)

"He isn't proud. Poor fellow. He's just weak."
- Mr. Hei (Hiroshi Akutagawa)

Review By: Jon Danziger   
Published: March 16, 2009

Director: Akira Kurosawa

MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Run Time: 02h:20m:01s
Release Date: March 17, 2009
UPC: 715515042918
Genre: foreign

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer

DVD Review

So what took you so long? Akira Kurosawa established himself as one of the great filmmakers in the late 1940s, and had an extraordinarily fertile couple of decades—it's hard to think of a filmmaker who produced a more consistently excellent body of work than Kurosawa's early period from, say, Rashomon in 1950 to Red Beard in 1965. But there wasn't another Kurosawa picture for another five years, tacitly announcing the more drawn out calendar of his later career, during which he rivaled only Stanley Kubrick for both consistently high quality of work and nearly excruciating lag time between projects. There are a couple of things especially notable about Dodes'ka-den: it marks the end of Kurosawa's collaboration with leading man Toshiro Mifune, and, perhaps more notably, was his first movie shot in color. In some respects, then, it's more interesting as a fulcrum and as a technical exercise than as a story, because in many respects it's a bit discordant, especially when considered in the overall body of the director's work.

There's no fierce dramatic propulsion to this movie; rather, it's a series of vignettes from the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder, and we witness the frailties and failures of a large cast of characters in one of Tokyo's poorest neighborhoods. The movie takes its title from the onomatopoeic sound made by a little boy obsessed with trolleys—fortunately we're not made to suffer through an exact diagnosis, but he seems impaired in some significant way, and in the West might be classified as mentally retarded, or autistic. Kurosawa has a certain generosity of spirit about those who are especially vulnerable—the soundtrack, for instance, pulses with the highly realistic sounds of the boy's imaginary trolley car, giving him and us the kind of sensory experience that happens only in his head. But the emotional tone of the movie wavers in some very strange ways—at times Kurosawa pushes into Capraesque treacle, and you can't help but think that there's something deeply patronizing about the successful film director lecturing us about the nobility of the poor. And at other times, the film seems to display a barely veiled contempt for its characters, portraying them as gargoyles or grotesques—it can feel like Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio shifted to the Tokyo slums.

If you're used to the ferocious and pitiless energy of Kurosawa pictures like Throne of Blood, this can be awfully jarring; and you sense that the director isn't always quite in control of his material. Like John Ford, Kurosawa was a marvelous director of action and spectacle and a keen observer of human nature, but never displayed much of a knack for comedy. You also get the sense that he hasn't yet mastered the color palette—though admittedly the notoriously inconsistent film stock of the period doesn't do him any favors. Sometimes the images are garish, sometimes weirdly muted; but they frequently seem out of sync with the story, making this feel at times almost more like a sketchbook. (It's sort of the most charitable way to look at the movie, in fact, and you come away with a keen appreciation for how even later in his life Kurosawa was such a quick learner—we're on our way to the visual splendor of movies like Ran, but we're not there yet.)

Similarly, there are some odd audio choices. Perhaps it's the difference between an Eastern audience and a Western one, but to my ear the main theme of the picture sounds frighteningly like MacArthur Park, and gives us all a little bit of the fear—one does not want arguably the greatest filmmaker of all time pondering who left the cake out in the rain. Some of the self-contained vignettes are unquestionably powerful, though—for instance, the old craftsman who encourages the thief who has broken in to his home to take his money, please, and not his tools, without which he would be lost. But it's the inconsistency of tone that is ultimately befuddling, and overall the film is more intriguing than entertaining.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: B-


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: Kurosawa forsook anamorphic widescreen along with black and white for this movie, so the compositions feel compact and intense, crammed into the smaller frame. That's the good news. The bad news, alluded to above, is that, as with many other films of the period, the print looks blotchy and frequently discolored. This almost certainly has to do with short-sighted economy and the ravages of time rather than with the transfer, but still, it's not the most lovely movie to watch.

Image Transfer Grade: B


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: The compromised technical quality isn't nearly as evident on the audio track, though perhaps I would feel differently if I spoke Japanese. Occasional bits of static interfere.

Audio Transfer Grade: B


Disc Extras

Static menu
Scene Access with 29 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Documentaries
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: RSDL

Extra Extras:
  1. accompanying booklet
  2. color bars
Extras Review: The relative paucity of extras speak to this film's place on the lower shelf in the Kurosawa canon. Other than an original trailer, the only extra of note is the relevant installment of Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create! (36m:21s), the Toho Studios documentary series in which each episode is dedicated to a Kurosawa film. Both actors and members of the production team are interviewed—especially noteworthy here is cinematographer Takao Saito, discussing Kurosawa's initiation into the world of color—but perhaps more interesting are the accounts of the Kurosawa projects that didn't come together between Red Beard and this one, especially The Runaway Train and Tora! Tora! Tora!.The accompanying booklet features an essay on the film by Kurosawa scholar and Criterion regular Stephen Prince, and an interview with Teruyo Nogami, who served as the director's assistant on the project.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

A necessary transitional picture for Kurosawa, but that doesn't make it a great one. Still, it's got some deeply moving sequences, and the opportunity to watch a filmmaker of this caliber learn on the job holds all sorts of fascinations.


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