Nestled amongst hills of rusting metal and variegated rubbish, built atop a bedrock of ashen stone that strongly resembles a lunar landscape, the junkyard shantytown of Dodes’ka-den (1970) is located somewhere between the outskirts of Tokyo and the far side of the universe. Akira Kurosawa's ensemble portrait of a dirt-poor urban community interweaves the alternately hopeful and despairing character studies, largely cast with non-professional actors. Piling up anecdotes like so many mountains of trash, Kurosawa's ambling tour doesn't deliver much in the way of dramatic structure or narrative development, but the parade of visually stylized vignettes turns up more than enough colorful details to keep things interesting.
The film opens on Roku-chan, a mentally retarded and irrepressibly upbeat young man known as “Trolley Freak” to his neighbors. When he's not papering the translucent walls of his home with crayon drawings that literally glow, Rokuchan conducts a trolley route through the slum, sans trolley. Sporting a dirty but well arranged suit and tramping through a pre-ordained circuit in lockstep with an imaginary timetable, Roku-chan repeatedly chants the chugga chugga-like onomatopoeia that lends the film its title, the sound of a subway cart rhythmically thundering across the tracks: dodes'ke-den, dodes'ke-den, dodes'ke-den.
To us, it is pantomime. To him, it’s a glorious reality. As he prepares for his route, Roku-chan goes through all the motions of checking his trolley, wiping it down, polishing where needed, checking for dust, and bemoaning the laziness of his mechanics. He’s surprisingly knowledgeable about the mechanics of trolleys and the mannerisms of trolley drivers. There's a disconnect between his experience of the world and others, sure, but to watch him doff his imaginary hat to his mother and go to work, to smile upon the decrepit lean-to’s and garbage-choked streets, is to see a man radiating with an almost Buddha-like sense of spiritual autonomy and calming satisfaction.
Other characters cope with their destitute situation in a manner similar to Roku-chan. A bedraggled beggar and his son, invariably cheerful, constantly discuss a house that they will build or currently are building in some sort of metaphysical yet very real way: a fantasy they continue to embroider straight through a bout of food poisoning that leaves one of them dead.
Depressing story? Well, in real-life the film was such a box office disaster and object of critical scorn that it pushed Kurosawa towards a failed suicide attempt, reportedly slashing himself over 30 times with a razor. But, umm, did we mention the pretty colors? Dodes’ka-den was Kurosawa’s first project not filmed in black and white; unhampered by the gritty, quasi-documentary realism of his earlier films, he pushed the palate to expressionist heights. The baroque color design achieves its fullest in its depictions of the sky. Kurosawa literally paints in in broad swathes of watercolors, so that its vivid hues seem to swim, or churn like the surface of the sun, a cauldron of yellows and reds of such violence and luster that it’s almost blinding. These are powerful colors, and the use of such unworldly scenes would return in later Kurosawa’s later works like Kagemusha (1980) and the Van Gogh sequences of Dreams (1990).
Despite its detractors, Dodes’ka-den remains as potent as ever, a landfill of moods and moments—high pathos, light comedy, baroque stylistic touches—that are nonetheless rich for being piled-on.