Ed note: For the next several weeks, composer and film aficionado Lewis Saul has agreed to supply us with in-depth commentary about the films of Akira Kurosawa, now showing in an extended festival at the Film Forum. Even if you're unable to stop by the Forum, we think Lew's insights will deepen your appreciation of these important movies.
PLAYING February 1st at The Film Forum
This is Kurosawa's 24th film, and his first color film!
This is a brand new 35mm print!
The Criterion DVD only came out last year (2009). Previous incarnations on DVD or VHS were printed in an incorrect aspect ratio (1:66:1 as opposed to the correct 1:33:1), and the color was terrible. The new DVD is like watching a totally different film.
In addition to the previously incorrect aspect ratio, Richie inadvertently stated that there was a 240-minute version which had been cut down to 140 minutes. That was a typo -- there is no missing footage from this film.
If you read my very first post, you might remember my discussion of Asu o tsukuru hitobito (Those Who Make Tomorrow) , a film which Kurosawa co-directed with two others, and which he has disowned and steadfastly refused to consider it a part of his complete works.
But even disregarding that film, there was a good chance that Kurosawa might have made 31 films, instead of 30! That additional film would have been right before this one -- of course I'm referring to the joint U.S./Japanese co-production produced by 20th Century Fox -- Tora! Tora! Tora! .
I could do an entire post on the fiasco that became ... but to put it briefly Kurosawa had signed on to the project with the understanding that David Lean would be directing the American sequences. Instead, they chose Richard Fleischer, a competent director, but no David Lean! Depending upon who you talk to, Kurosawa was either fired or quit after shooting had begun in December 1969. Personally, knowing Kurosawa's style as well as I do, I imagine that the real reason had more to do with AK's certainty that deadlines were not as important as "getting it right." American producers were perhaps offended by his seemingly autocratic style, tried to rush him, and the thing came crashing down. The Japanese directors who replaced him were Toshio Masuda and the great Kinji Fuksasaku.
In the time elapsed since his last film (1965) and the above-noted disaster, the Japanese film industry had gone into the tank. Young kids wanted only Hollywood flics. Older folks stayed home and watched television (in color by this time!) ... the studios were melting: Daiei, bankrupt; Nikkatsu switched to making soft-core porno films; Shochiku was only saved by the Tora-san series; Toei survived, restructured. But Toho was the biggest disaster area of them all! Other than the Godzilla franchise and taking over the Zatoichi series from Daiei, they were hopeless. Not just Kurosawa, but directors such as Inagaki, Taniguchi, Toyoda, Honda and others -- all out of work!
Now -- not only was Kurosawa in danger (he felt) of never being able to direct a film again, but he had completely broken off with Toshirô Mifune after the two-year production of Akahige (Red Beard) , and the rumors swirling around about his "mental health," which resulted from the dueling press conferences after the "Tora! Tora! Tora! disaster, made him incredibly anxious to make a new film.
So, Masaki Kobayashi, Keisuke Kinoshita, and Kon Ichikawa formed their own joint company, Club of the Four Knights (Yonki no kai) in July 1969. The idea behind the group was that each director would direct a small, inexpensive film and go from there. Naturally, Kurosawa was first up -- the biggest name of the four both domestically and internationally.
The four collaborated on a brilliant script for a funny jidai-geki called Dora-Heita, but could not produce it at that time because it would have been too expensive. (Ichikawa finally got to direct it in 2000 -- it is fantastic!!)
- Preproduction began on March 31, 1970.
- Shooting began on April 23, 1970, at the garbage dump in Horie-cho, in Edogawa-ku. Kurosawa had taken over the dump and organized it, built shacks and alleyways, and painted the sets in garish colors.
- Yoshitaka Zushi (Rokuchan) recalls the first day of shooting: "He said 'Yoi, sutato!' (the Japanese equivalent of 'Action!'), but the way he said it wasn't in his usual voice. I looked over and saw that he was weeping.'" [Galbraith, p. 477].
- Red Beard took two years to film. Dodesukaden took two months!
- The score is by the great Tôru Takemitsu. Having annoyed Masuru Satô one time too many with his constant "100 Classical Greatest Hits" album in his mind, he needed a new composer. Takemitsu is hugely famous in both the classical music community (his serious music is astonishing -- brilliant and thrilling!) and the Japanese film industry (at least 90 scores between 1955 and his death in 1996). Obviously, Kurosawa was not about to get him to water down some classical music for film -- not that AK didn't try! According to Richie he told him to use Bizet as his model (I don't hear it, thankfully!) ...
- If Dodesukaden had been succesful and made money (which it did not), Kurosawa had planned to make a 70mm film, adapting Dostoyevsky again, The House of the Dead.
- Re: prints and aspect ratios -- when I first saw this film in 1999 with an incorrect aspect ratio and therefore totally incorrect color timing -- well, frankly it was definitely in the bottom 10 of my Kurosawa 30 list! Not sure where I'd rank it today -- but I'm certain it would be much higher! I totally enjoyed watching this film with the vivid colors restored and balanced. Thank you, Criterion.
- There are no wipes in this film.
In Japanese with English subtitles
1:33:1 aspect ratio
- New restored high-definition digital transfer
- Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, a 36-minute documentary, created as part of the Toho Masterworks series, about the making of Dodes'ka-den, including interviews with director Akira Kurosawa, script supervisor Teruyo Nogami, actor Yoshitaka Zushi, and other members of the cast and crew
- Theatrical trailer
- New and improved English subtitle translation
- PLUS: A booklet featuring a new essay by film historian Stephen Prince and a new interview with Nogami