On the heels of reading a real uplifting novel like The Grapes of Wrath, it was a much needed pick-me-up to be able to watch Akira Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den. I’m kidding. About the uplifting part.
This film takes place in what looks like a nuclear fallout zone. I imagined the setting as Hiroshima, a year later. It’s pretty much a slum. The viewer is only given a glimpse of the dirty, run-down fragments of a community: there are no wide shots of the surrounding facets of the slum, or the larger city in the distance. This is fitting because the viewer is treated to only fragments of the characters’ diegetic lives.
Without knowing Japanese, it’s hard for me to guess what “dodes’ka-den” would be translated as in English. The boy is mimicking driving a trolley, and it’s hard to come up with the onomatopoedic (is that a word?) equivalent of a trolley sound, so I’m correllating it to our English train sound of “Chugga chugga chugga chugga choo choo.” It doesn’t matter other than just knowing that the boy is repeating it over and over as he’s acting like he’s the trolley conductor (he’s shell-shocked or mentally handicapped). Bless his heart.
The film shows glimpses into the home lives of the various residents of this sector of the slum: interestingly, many of them are doing work from home, assembling various items to sell like hair brushes or fake flowers. Some of them are drinking, some of them are fornicating, some of them are starving, some of them are washing clothes and gossiping, some of them are dying, some of them are already dead.
Perhaps the most intriguing character in the film is the guy who’s pretty much already dead: he walks around like a zombie, his eyes bugging out, bright and wide open, but the lights are turned off inside. As the film progresses, his estranged wife returns and she seeks forgiveness from him for cheating on him (presumably MANY years ago). But he registers nothing. He is already dead. Killed years ago by that ravenous beast, the she-wolf, whose lusty hearts saps men of all their strength.
It’s sad, actually, that he wastes his life away. He gave up. Is he a waste of space? He makes no effort to even talk to her, nor to anyone else in the film. He just stares out into oblivion. It’s no way to live. It’s not living.
Same thing goes for the homeless man with the little boy: idiocy and poor parenting gets them into a real fine mess. Their days were consumed with trying to stay alive, and trying to keep themselves motivated to stay alive by fantasizing about building their dream house. They struggled for survival every day and it did not work out very well in the end for the boy.
Some of the characters in this film struggle with their daily existences, minute-by minute-sometimes. The mother of the Trolley Freak, as he’s called by the taunting kids, is desperate to keep her son happy because he does not seem to realize he is different; the girl who makes the artificial flowers struggles just to stay awake so she can finish her task, all-the-while she is just a pound of flesh without any enjoyment in life whatsoever.
There are other characters who do not struggle quite as much, like the gossiping wives around the water spigot, or the two couples who seem to be “swingers,” or the old man who is a positive, compassionate influence in the community.
So what do all of these characters have in common? Why is Kurosawa making a film about the slums and the various people that are living there? Honestly, I don’t know. But I’m going to make a guess.
I think we all exist within a community with our own individual sense of reality. We all arrive at this moment in our lives with baggage of various sizes and weights. We all have capabilities for success and failure. Just because we are who we are right now does not mean others are right there with us, though they may be standing beside us in the literal sense. I think Kurosawa was showing the viewer a community where hardship, gossip, violence, love, sex, compassion, death, and longing are all a part of daily life, and though we may be experiencing bliss or pain in our own realities, those around us might be experiencing something similar to or completely different than us.
I think we are supposed to watch a film like this (and I also think that the horrible film, Babel, was an attempt at this) and recognize that we are part of a community of men and women who, behind closed doors and out in the public eye, lead individual lives, but also lead lives that we are all subject to seeing if we bother to open our eyes to them.
Two of the best examples of this in the film are when the bike delivery boy keeps noticing the flower girl is pale, weak, and sickly looking, and how he knows that her uncle is overworking her. But every time he confronts her about this, he only takes it so far as to tell her she’s in bad shape, but he never does anything to help her. The viewer is thinking he will somehow rescue her. But each time, he rides off on his bike with a smile having only pointed out the obvious. This comes back to bite him in the end (in a way) because she later stabs him as a proxy for her uncle raping her.
Another example is when a burglar invaded the old man’s house and was about to walk away with his tools. The old man woke up and asked him to please not take his tools, but to take his money instead. He got up, gave him the money, and told him to come back if he needed more. Later, when the police caught the burglar, and the burglar confessed to the burglary, the old man denied ever having given him the money.
The old man has a code of honor that I believe is highly valued by Kurosawa. He was the only “old man” in the film, and he was always dressed traditionally, while the other men were dressed variously. A clear statement about old/new. He was also the person that seemed to be able to alleviate various tensions in the film: like an old Sage.
Ultimately, I think this film was about paying attention to the world, and the people, around us. And more than that, behaving compassionately in all that we do.
That’s possible, but not for everyone.
This film is really a lot more than just that but I can’t possibly fathom the film’s cultural meaning from a Japanese standpoint because I am not Japanese.