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by Jay Seaver

"A track without a trolley."
4 stars

"Do-des-ka-den" is the sound trolleys make as they roll through the streets of Tokyo. Or at least, that's how they sound in the head of Roku-chan, a mentally retarded young man living in one of the city's outer slums; he repeats it to himself as he makes his daily circuit around the area. As such, it makes a fitting title for Akira Kurosawa's examination of one of those neighborhoods - a constant, unchanging dirge that nevertheless might as well be imaginary for those who hear it.

Roku-chan (Yoshitaka Zushi) and his long-suffering mother (Kin Sugai) are not the only eyes through which we see the area. There's Misao Sawagami (Yuko Kusunoki), pregnant for the sixth time, although the housewives who spend all day gossiping by the communal fire doubt that any of them come from her husband Ryotaro (Shinsuke Minami). Best friends Hatsutaro Kawaguchi (Kunie Tanaka) and Masuo Masuda (Hisashi Igawa) work and drink together; it's so hard to see where one ends and the other begins that it tkes a moment to realize that their wives Yoshi (Jitsuko Yoshimura) and Tatsu (Hideko Okiyama) have switched partners. Foster father Kyota Watanabe (Tatsuo Matsumura) works his niece Katsuko (Tomoko Yamazaki) almost to death and drinks away what little her piecework brings in. A homeless man (Moboru Mitani) passes the time by describing his dream house to his son (Hiroyuki Kawase).

And there's more. Kurosawa and his two co-writers (working from a novel by Shugoro Yamamoto) juggle roughly a dozen storylines, intersecting very little, other than in how a number of characters confide in elderly Mr. Tanba (Atsushi Watanabe) or how the housewives have comments to make on just about everything going on, although they don't involve themselves directly. Kurosawa and company avoid a set structure - some vignettes are entirely atomic, over and done with in one scene, while others recur, or build from start to finish. It is, perhaps, a little too sprawling - though none of the segments Kurosawa rotates through are exactly narrative dead zones, none become the film's spine. Dodes'ka-den tells many small, intimate stories in its nearly two and a half hours, but doesn't spend much time with any one of them.

If the stories don't excite the audience, Kurosawa's visual craftsmanship certainly does. Dodes'ka-den is a movie where his visual style is making an obvious transition, as it is both his last film to be shot in the squarish "Academy ratio" (4:3) and his first to be shot in color. It's perhaps not surprising that he takes so well to color - Kurosawa was an artist famed for using paintings rather than sketches to storyboard his films - but he quickly makes interesting use of the tool: The vagrant, for instance, has clearly given much thought to art and design as he mentally builds his dream house, and the brief shots of it demonstrate how, as much as black and white is beautiful, a change in color creates an immediate emotional response. The clothes of the Kawagawas and Masudas (at least the wives) co-ordinate with their houses, and a line drawn between those passes directly through the center of the communal fire that is at the center of both the neighborhood and many shots, and might not be as obviously the center of the community if the film were shot in a widescreen format. The slum also looks less like something attached to a city than an isolated village carved out of a garbage dump. We only ever leave it two or three times, and always with purpose.

The ensemble cast is quite good, too. The beggar father and son are especially notable, considering the role reversal they represent: Moboru Mitani gives off the appearance of being educated and intelligent, but often seems quite naive, especially compared to Hiroyuki Kawase's portrayal of the son, who almost always seems to be humoring his father. Another memorable performance by a fairly young actor is turned in by Tomoko Yamazaki, whose near silence and weariness as Katsuko says volumes. Atsushi Watanabe, in his final film role, is note perfect as the wise old man of the neighborhood; there's a bone-dry sort of humor to his kind gestures, a true humility.

There are many other performances and stories, but to list them all would make this review a marathon, and I am not the master that Kurosawa is at consolidating many stories into an elegant whole. "Dodes'ka-den" is not his most exciting movie, but it is one of his most beautiful and sympathetic. Like its most memorable characters, the film says more about being trapped in a life without opportunities by its quiet dignity than any frantic hand-wringing.

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originally posted: 04/13/10 19:45:46
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  09-Jun-1971 (NR)
  DVD: 08-Dec-2009



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