Clickety-Clack! Clickety-Clack! Clear the track for Judge Roy Hrab!
"This is a story about bizarre people in a bizarre town."
The term bizarre only scratches the surface of Dodes'ka-den, the literal translation of which is "Clickety-Clack." The film was a commercial failure, upon its release in 1970, and some speculate the poor reception contributed to Akira Kurosawa's (Yojimbo) attempted suicide the following year. He wouldn't make another motion picture until Dersu Uzala in 1975.
Facts of the Case
A mentally retarded boy is obsessed with streetcars, covering the walls of his mother's place with painted pictures of trolleys. His fascination runs so deep he believes he's a streetcar driver. The boy drives an imaginary streetcar around a garbage dump multiple times a day, making imaginary stops, and chanting "Dodes'ka-den! Dodes'ka-den!" and other sound effects. Along his "route" lives a community of individuals, couples, and families, each with their own story.
What is Dodes'ka-den about? At a basic level, the film follows the lives of the people who live in a slum. There is no overarching story. Instead, the film switches back and forth across a collection of incidents involving the slum dwellers. Each thread reveals these people to be trapped—both physically and psychologically—doomed to live a life of disappointment (or worse).
The town's population includes: the streetcar boy and his mother; a young woman living with her lecherous uncle; a pair of friends who get drunk and swap wives; a man so scarred by the betrayal of a lover he has removed himself from all social interaction; a beggar and his son who live in a deserted car, fantasizing about building a house on a hill; and a man with five children and a sixth on the way who knows he is not the father of any, but treats them as if they were his own. There are even more characters I have not mentioned.
Needless to say, there's much to keep track of over the course of the film's two hour plus runtime. However, the quantity of stories and number of characters is not the main issue. It's the content. Kurosawa drives us around and around the town, telling a depressing story each time. Almost nobody tries to improve upon his or her situation. Instead, everybody, with the exception of the blissfully ignorant trolley boy, appears resigned to a pathetic life in the trash heap, opting only for unhealthy mental escapes and denials of reality. This utter lack of initiative makes it difficult to sympathize with most of the characters. Once in a while, Kurosawa throws in a moment of levity but, rather than providing relief, it only serves to underscore the bleak existence of these people.
The only feature that sometimes brightens the mood is Kurosawa's use of color. Dodes'ka-den was his first color film and he was experimenting with the medium here. With a highly stylized use of color reminiscent of Masaki Kobayashi's brilliant Kwaidan, Kurosawa utilizes painted landscapes, color coordinated outfits and houses, and heavy make-up. It's a clear foreshadowing of his use of color in the later epics Kagemusha and Ran.
The video quality is amazing, for a film made almost forty years ago. Criterion has done superb restoration work for this high-definition digital transfer, eliminating dirt, debris, and scratches. At times, the color seems to fade momentarily, but for the most part the picture and colors are clean, clear, bright and vivid. The mono sound is simple. The dialogue and Toru Takemitsu's (Pitfall) score come through without any problem.
There is a decent set of extras. First, there is an unrestored trailer, which serves to highlight the excellent restoration of the film. Second, there is an excellent 36-minute documentary, "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create," about the making of the film and the professional setbacks Kurosawa encountered leading up to production of Dodes'ka-den, including his hiring and subsequent firing as director of the Japanese segments of Tora! Tora! Tora!. The documentary also includes interviews with the cast and crew of Dodes'ka-den as well as excerpts of an interview with Kurosawa. Lastly, Criterion has included a booklet with an insightful essay by film historian Stephen Prince and an interview with script supervisor Teruyo Nogami.
The episodic and hopelessly dreary Dodes'ka-den is one of Kurosawa's lesser works and it's easy to understand why audiences shunned the film. His later and superior vignette-based film Akira Kurosawa's Dreams suggests that Kurosawa learned from this experience.
Despite the overwhelming cynicism on display, Dodes'ka-den is thoughtful and holds artistic value. In addition, the print restoration effort by Criterion is incredible. Kurosawa completists will definitely want to purchase this, but non-aficionados should take a more cautious approach and rent first.
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