Japan, 1970

Directed by Kurosawa Akira

With Zushi Yoshitaka (Roku-chan, the tram boy), Watanabe Atsushi (Mr. Tamba), Mitani Noburu (the beggar), Kawase Hiroyuki (the beggar’s son), Yamazaki Tomoko (Watanaka Katsuko), Matsumura Tatsuo (Watanake Kyota), Ban Jûnzaburô (Mr. Shima), Tange Kiyoko (Mrs. Shima)

“Dodes’kaden” is not a noun but an onomatopoeia; “clickety-clack” could be a rough translation; this is the sound Roku-chan makes to imitate the engine of the tram chugging across the slum he lives in. Each day, the young man drives it, after checking the mechanics at dawn. He is proud of his job and expects the folks to care for the tram as much as he does.

But the tram does not exist; Roku-chan’s workday is a fancy; the dim-witted boy is mocked every day by the other kids, causing his mother grief. And yet this fantasy opens and closes the film and is a recurring fixture, contributing to the narrative’s visual coherence.

After a hiatus of five years in his celebrated career, Kurosawa Akira chooses to shoot a film that would be his first one in color, with new actors (Mifune Toshirô, his longtime favorite one, quarreled with him after the shooting of “Akahige – Red Beard” [1965]). He based the screenplay once again on a novel by prolific novelist Yamamoto Shûgorô (that was already the case of “Tsubaki Sanjûrô” [1962] and “Akahige”), which is a chronicle of the daily life of people living in a Tôkyô slum, in an effort that is reminiscent of previous films Kurosawa made about downtrodden people and drab places, part of a wider tradition of the Japanese cinema to study the society’s fringes and their unlucky inhabitants in a realistic, dedicated manner.

Not so dim but really endearing: Zushi Yoshitaka is driving the narrative

There are numerous characters, each with their own storylines. We meet Watanaka Katsuko, a girl exploited by his lazy uncle but loved by a delivery boy; Mr. Shima, a bureaucrat who is afflicted by tics and whose wife is a horrible shrew; a beggar who lives with his son in a jalopy and spends hours imagining the kind of house they could build; two construction workers who hit the bottle and swap their wives; an artisan who sticks with his unfaithful and ungrateful wife and tries to love kids he may not have fathered; a blind man who would never speak again to his partner; a middle-aged guy prone to outbursts of anger and violence; and a group of women who clean their pots and pans or do the laundry at the tap standing in the middle of the slum – a perfect place for them to see much of the events and comment them.

There is another character standing apart from this lively crowd, rather like Roku-chan, though for different reasons. Mr. Tamba, another artisan, is an old and wise fellow who seems interested in giving help, solace or simply understanding to his companions in misery, showing a man why he should give up on suicide or avoiding any punishment for a thief. He stands at one end of the human life and reason, aware that people easily harm themselves and others and appreciative of the value of life. He seems a beacon of wisdom and dignity in a place struggling to get both. At the other end of human life and reason, as a retarded teenager, Roku-chan looks at the world in an innocent way, only caring for his fantasy and unable to perceive that there is a more normal, more successful but distant part of the society – he can’t see the taunts of the schoolchildren and can’t accept a painter may stand in his way, sorry, in the tram’s way (Kurosawa’s empathy is at the highest with this personage). Roku-chan and Mr. Tamba get along well and appear regularly in the meandering chronicle; their attitudes give the place a touch of humanity.

Life in the slum is harsh, indeed. Material conditions are more often than not grim. Public services and political authorities have forgotten the inhabitants. Men work menial jobs, if they even have one. Women are homemakers who get bored, gossip or flirt; most of them speak a coarse language and have vulgar behaviors. Relationships between men and women are troubled, confrontational or even scandalous. Alcoholism and sexual debauch are widespread. Some in this population manage to make the ends meet, like the Shima. Others are trapped in a perverse routine of their own, like the artisan playing his unwonted role of father and spouse. The most poignant story is the beggar’s, endlessly building in his imagination a home he can’t afford and refusing to go and see a doctor even as his son’s health gets worse.

Kurosawa has always given a keen attention to the best way to edit the shots. He mixes the various strands of the screenplay smoothly to make the narration fluid and comprehensive so that all the voices keep their tones while sustaining a sense of harmony. This is a remarkable effort to produce a polyphonic movie, whose purpose is to tell numerous stories involving as many characters over the same segment of time and space, preceding the films of Robert Altman (who was then releasing “M.A.S.H.” and made “Nashville” five years later) and other, more recent, big features (like “Babel” [2006] or “Magnolia [1999]). Rhythm is never hurried and no character is neglected.

The palette is rich and striking choices are made to emphasize some characters and developments. Both the beggar’s dreams and Roku-chan’s life are depicted in warm, brilliant colors, under a bright light, just like sunsets, as if theirs fancies are worthy more beautiful images than the dull, but real, lives of the others. Mr. Tamba’s home is shot with colder light and more neutral tones, as fitting his age and temperament. Darker colors point to tragedy, at Katsuko’s home or in the behavior of the beggar and his son, or the interior of the blind. In general, clothes and objects can easily be flashy and gaudy, reflecting perhaps the coarse nature of the place. But perhaps, these colors also reflect how lively these people are despite their poverty.

The camera never misses the opportunity to capture the emotions and small flaws of the characters, giving, beyond the personal drama, a wider and more sensitive portrait of these people. Comic relief and daydreaming offset the harshest moments while the music composed by Takemitsu Tôru gives a soft, lullaby-like tone to this rambunctious movement of people. Kurosawa intends to depict people stuck on the fringe of the society, on the downside of the high growth era that was changing Japan in a straightforward fashion and he does it with the same respect and empathy that illuminated many of his previous films.

Reception was dismal. The audience wasn’t expecting this kind of topic from the author of “Shichinin no samurai – The Seven Samurai” (1954) and the sensitive attention he pays to the downtrodden probably shocked. It is not difficult to imagine the average Japanese moviegoers, still relishing Kurosawa’s samurai movies or perhaps expecting a gentle, elegant take worthy of other filmmakers of Kurosawa’s generation, most certainly comfortable with the society as it then stood, getting dismayed by the appearance of Mrs. Shima, a cigarette sticking out of a corner of her mouth, with a hostile stare, disparaging anyone who crosses her path or by the choice to make the crude drawings of trains that decorate Roku-chan’s room the film’s last images. Its commercial failure played no small part in the depression Kurosawa suffered (a condition that led to a suicide attempt). It is unfair.

The polyphonic and intricate story is artfully shot and, above all, enables an overlooked section of the society to get their voices heard, even if the sounds are unpleasant. The viewpoints the film chooses bring us in the intimate world of people who are not simply failures; in fact it could be argued that they are remarkably apt at surviving and finding a place in an unfair world, however unsatisfactory it could be, and even when the effort is based on a fancy. For Kurosawa, that was a great opportunity to move beyond his black and white inquiries on the Japanese society and even more his acclaimed takes on the samurai movie. He became the gracious colorist of those quickly dismissed as colorless.

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