Kurosawa made Red Beard in 1965, which was a massive critical and financial success. At the end of 1965, it was in fact Japan's highest grossing film, but for many reasons, Kurosawa would not finish another film for 5 years and would enter into the darkest period of his career. Kurosawa suddenly had a difficult time getting funded for his projects, as they were usually expensive endeavors. So, he turned to Hollywood and became involved in the production of Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and was slated to direct the Japanese section of the story, but this turned into a huge debacle and Kurosawa left the film to work on something else. He decided to begin a new project, one which would not contain his longtime collaborative actor Toshiro Mifune. It would also be in color, something that Kurosawa had never used before. This film would be shot in only 9 weeks and would go on to be one of his biggest box-office failures. During the following year after the film's release, after health and mental problems, Kurosawa attempted suicide. He would miraculously recover and would go on to have a late bloom to his career. But this central film to this difficult period in his life is one that cannot be easily digested or ignored. It is Dodes'ka-den.
Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den is the darkest film of his that I’ve seen and I can’t quite think of a close second, although I Live in Fear (1955) might be a candidate. Here, the story is boiling over with sadness and regret, abuse and social impotence, addiction and all manner of sadness and injustice. This is the closest that Kurosawa ever came to Bergman-esque territory. Kurosawa’s story revolves around a ragtag assemblage of people living in a garbage dump. There is a boy with mental development issues, who pretends he is a trolley driver and runs around the dump all day making noises mimicking a trolley. There is a girl who lives with her abusive uncle who works her night and day tying flowers together to make a living. Another thread follows two very poor individuals, a man and boy living in an abandoned car barely scraping by, begging for food at restaurants. Several other stories are told as well, involving infidelity between a man and wife, an attempted suicide by a man at the end of his rope, among many others. All of this is very dark and the depressing atmosphere is truly enveloping. Life is cruel in Dodes’ka-den.
In perhaps the most compelling moment in the film, the man and boy who live in the car become food poisoned and are subject to intense stomach pains and sickness. One can almost feel the pain and suffering they are going through. Even the color of their faces takes on a surreal green pall to it. This is due to the makeup, but also the lighting, which strikes at odd angles and bathes them in this repulsive green color. Kurosawa makes excellent and continued use of color at fascinating moments, highlighting the toxic environment these people live in with neon colors, both in the clothing palette but also in the background colors. The sunlight glows with an otherworldly orange-yellow at times and swirls of color appear in the background as if out of a Van Gogh painting. These moments are beautiful and memorable both for their expressiveness and surreal qualities. It's amazing that it took Kurosawa so long to use color in his films, but his use of color here is one of the film's most striking and memorable aspects.
All the stories have very dark elements that are punctuated at times by slight attempts at grace or persistence in the face of adversity. However, there generally is an endless cycle of disappointment and heartache at the center of these stories. These people can’t rise above their ramshackle dump and move themselves out of it, precisely because they can’t bring conclusion to their internal emotional and psychological suffering. They persist and subsist because they can’t bring themselves to do anything else. It’s hard to say whether Kurosawa is calling this a noble venture or not. This is the question at the heart of one of Kurosawa’s most challenging and rewarding films: is life worth living under these circumstances? He wouldn’t make another film for five more years, and following his suicide attempt it would take a special project to get him going again. His Dersu Uzala (1975) is essential viewing following Dodes’ka-den in that it portrays a healing, humanity, and companionship that is in direct contrast to the continued suffering and struggle in Dodes’ka-den. These two films together constitute the psychological breakdown and recovery of one of the true masters of cinema.