After working steadily up to Red Beard in 1965, Akira Kurosawa slammed on the brakes and made a movie every five years, like clockwork, for a quarter of a century. (Jan Svankmajer works the same way these days, incidentally.) This is the first of those five-yearly movies and it was a financial failure that made Kurosawa attempt suicide.
In the mid-sixties, Kurosawa's exclusive contract with Toho came to an end and he started looking for work abroad. Thinking rightly that Japan's film industry was in trouble, he went to America and eventually got involved in Tora! Tora! Tora!, only to find that Hollywood didn't get on with his working methods and his American producers assumed he was mentally ill. He got fired. Returning to Japan with his reputation in shreds, he tried to make Dora-Heita (completed in 2000) and eventually shot Dodesukaden in about nine weeks, deliberately working fast to prove that he could still work efficiently and on a limited budget. It was based on a Shugoro Yamamoto novel about destitute people who live on a rubbish tip, it's almost plotless and the box office was disastrous. In December 1971, Kurosawa repeatedly slit his wrists and throat, but lived.
For another two decades, Kurosawa's films all had finance from abroad. No one would fund him at home, even after Kagemusha and Ran were massive hits. They wouldn't touch him. Dersu Uzala (1975) was a Soviet co-production. Kagemusha (1980) happened because George Lucas and Francis Ford Coppola strong-armed 20th Century Fox. Ran (1985) was made with French money. Dreams (1990) had Steven Spielberg and Warner Bros as its saviours.
The critics weren't as negative as the box office, but no one went crazy for it either. It's a film about a community of dysfunctional no-goods. They live in a rubbish dump. Of course there's something wrong with them. If they could make it in the regular world, they would. There's also no main character and no central plot, with the film instead just being vignettes.
The film thus doesn't seem to be going anywhere. Strange people go about their ill-organised lives and at no point does it ever seem as if anything might happen. There's wry, distant tragedy and dark, dry comedy. It's not very entertaining and it's hard to imagine many people recommending it, but it has charms if you're prepared to sit through it and exercise patience. Its characters include:
1. A mentally deficient young man who loves trains. The walls of his house are covered with childish drawings of them. Every day, he drives one... but it's not real. It's all in his head. He's polishing empty air. He pulls an imaginary whistle and wears an imaginary cap. He says "dodesukaden" as he goes along, because that's what he thinks trains sound like. He's pathetic, of course, but Kurosawa shows a whimsical indulgence in his fantasies by putting real sound effects on the soundtrack. It's charming, if you're in the right mood for it.
2. A pair of drunkards who get steaming drunk every evening and get shouted at. One day, they swap wives and don't seem to notice. Presumably the wives do, though. It's most peculiar.
3. A charming, gentle old soul who'll help anyone. His scene when someone tries to burgle him is a scream, for instance.
4. A businessman with a facial tic and the wife from hell. Her cabbage scene will make your toenails crawl back up into your toes. Look out for the scene where our hero invites three colleagues back home after work and they start rightly criticising that wife, though.
5. A tramp and his young son, who spend their time having intelligent, thoughtful conversations about Japanese national characteristics and the dream house they're going to build. They go into amazing detail on the latter. It's like a daytime TV style programme, but with a presenter who sleeps under bridges and in burnt-out cars.
6. A monster, who's also the most normal-looking person in the film. There's enough tragedy here that one can hardly accuse Kurosawa of cheerleading for these freaks and dropouts, but equally I think he's clearly fond of them. There's a warmth here. These may be the dregs of society, but they're very Japanese dregs, unlike the Russians he was portraying in The Lower Depths. They're honest, subject to a few qualifications. (The thief is a very minor character, for instance.) Even the little boy's food-scrounging is all dependent on people's kindness, although there's unkindness too.
Anyway, I was talking about the monster. He has a wife in hospital and an adopted daughter who supports him financially by making paper flowers. She's one of two characters in this film who appears to have chosen to be mute. I won't go into further detail, but yeeesh.
7. The other mute, whom I presume is blind since he surely can't be a zombie. (The tramp and his son, on the other hand, end up with make-up jobs that could be straight from a Romero film.) This mute has a strange, haunting half-story with almost no hard facts.
It's a very odd film. It was Kurosawa's first in colour and he shot it in 4:3, with some stylised touches that one wouldn't expect from him at all. Look at the way the two drunks' households are colour-coded at the end, to show that normality and the natural order have been restored. It would be easy to characterise this as a tragedy, since several terrible things happen, but I think it's too detached and ironic for that label to fit comfortably. It has a lightness, I think. This might perhaps make it feel a little distant and it's not always easy to care about these people, but I laughed at moments like, for instance, shouty guy objecting to the mute's dead eyes.
It got an Oscar nomination for Best Foreign Film, but it's usually regarded as a bit of a Kurosawa misfire. It's almost drama-free and I'd advise approaching it with caution, if at all, but I see it as a companion piece to The Lower Depths, except with a paradoxical optimism about human nature. Look at the scene where Dad protests his love for his not-kids, for instance. That's my reading, though, and other critics (e.g. Roger Ebert) have seen this as a tragedy made by a man "obsessed with pessimism, with dark thoughts about the aimlessness of human existence."
If nothing else, all this makes it a more complicated film than most. Watch it if you're feeling patient and in the mood for something a bit different.