Of all the evils that have challenged and tormented humanity throughout the long road of history, poverty is among the most terrible. The degree to which it can confine, limit, and crush its chosen victims can be absolute. Capitalism has had such a profound impact on the development of contemporary society as we know it that money, in turn, has become the instrumental force that keeps it in motion, enabling for its subjects all the advantages of security, well being, and convenience that this era of rampant technological and industrial growth allows. To be deprived of money is to be rendered a being deprived of agency, recognition, or influence: a kind of ghost. The world becomes a prison, closing these ghosts off from the spaces and services they’d be able to enjoy if only they could afford their set prices. But since they can’t, they are instead shunted into the areas that are only accessible by way of their extremely limited means. With this confinement come stigmatization, shame, and anti-social tendencies. In the empty space left by the flight of hope and options, vices and bad habits tighten their clutches while the dangers of sickness, hunger, and addiction become ever more real. The boundaries one is forced to keep within soon become spaces of familiarity and even comfort while the gap between “us” and “them” grows wider, giving rise to shitty housing projects, slums, shady neighbourhoods. The realm of light, cleanliness, and good food becomes a distant constellation for those mired in the filth of the lower depths. What makes everything even worse is just how thin the line between misery and contentment can be – a decisive job interview, hoped-for wage increase, or loan approval can make all the difference between one and the other. Such are the building blocks of survival and keys to peace of mind for the working poor and those even further below them.
Many artists have quite capably utilized the cinema as a tool for exploring and analyzing these tragic elements of society. With classic early precedents set by Charlie Chaplin, Jean Renoir and Vittorio de Sica, later generations of filmmakers from all over the world have adopted the same universal concerns about the plights of lower-class citizens while incorporating the specific conditions of their respective countries and the ever-shifting waves of globalism and modernity. Belgium’s Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne have created a much-celebrated body of work made up of spare, powerful verité dramas hewn from raw life itself that revolve around the lives and ambitions of underprivileged and working class characters. Tsai Ming-liang has honed his own distinctive poetic language of long takes and waterlogged urban decay, with two of his most haunting works, I Don’t Want to Sleep Alone (Hei yan quan, 2006) and Stray Dogs (Jiao you, 2013), focused on impoverished characters forced to live in cramped apartments, derelict buildings, and trash-filled hideaways. The shadowy underworld of Lisbon’s now-demolished Fontainhas slum has served more as a raison d’être than a setting for Pedro Costa’s penetrating Ossos (1997), In Vanda’s Room (No quarto de Vanda, 2000), and Colossal Youth (Juventude em marcha, 2006). And British cinema bears an extensive legacy of social realist works from such filmmakers as Lindsay Anderson, Ken Loach, Mike Leigh, Lynne Ramsay, and Andrea Arnold. All of these filmmakers and more have, in their own ways, wielded the camera as a kind of microscope through which they have conducted indispensable studies of the poor – and, consequently, the nature of humanity itself.
Of such artists, Finland’s Aki Kaurismäki has distinguished himself as perhaps the most perceptive, dedicated, and universally appealing one of them all. His own journey into the lives of workers, drifters, and unfortunates, informed by a youth spent working various odd jobs before he found success in the cinema, has been unfolding for over three decades within a world of his own making. Behold the perfect Kaurismäki milieu: a bar during the evening hours. The walls are painted a pleasing, luminous turquoise that overpowers the visible wear gathered over the joint’s many years of business. In addition to the drinks in front of them, most of the patrons have a cigarette hanging from their fingers or mouths. No one is smiling. A band is onstage at the front of the dive – a skinny rock ‘n’ roll outfit with rumpled suits that have seen better days, elaborate hairdos, blank expressions, and a killer sound. They are playing a catchy rockabilly number to the roomful of people, all of whom are day labourers and clock punchers simply enjoying this brief, pleasant reprieve before their inevitable return to their trucks or factories or construction sites or restaurants tomorrow morning. The bartender watches the band play from his spot behind the bar, still as a statue. Near one of the customers’ tables, a dog lies on the floor. At the table, a man sits alone. A single red flower lies before him on the table’s surface. He looks doubtful about the likelihood of being joined by the blossom’s intended recipient, even though his poker face betrays nary a hint of inner sorrow. He blinks and takes a sip of his drink. The band plays. The patrons watch, listen, talk to one another, and drink. The dog dozes.
Aki Kaurismäki’s films radiate charm, humour, and hope, but only ever according to his very specific manner of expression. Put simply, he never allows himself to slip into cheesiness or sentimentality. Any measures of inspiration he may offer are expertly tempered by the cool, level gaze with which he studies the colossal social and economic disparities in the world and, always, those left with the short end of the stick, in which his expertise in the art of the deadpan is instrumental. Why make a character smile or sob when, in either case, a blank poker face will be more honest, if not more believable, funny, and downright cool? It is Robert Bresson’s infamous disdain for “acting” in any conventional sense fused with a miserablist acceptance of the way things are, for better or (usually) for worse. Kaurismäki’s philosophical stance serves as a defiant, neatly extended middle finger aimed at the sunny optimism behind that cute, overused phrase “Keep Calm and Carry On”: when things are so bad for those struggling to make ends meet, what more fitting course of action is there for them besides pouring another drink, lighting another cigarette, and dropping another quarter in the jukebox?
Or so it seems. But despite their outward impression of resigned gloom, Kaurismäki’s films catalogue a veritable wealth of options and stratagems for society’s downtrodden to adopt in the face of limited funds and means. Many of his characters are exemplars of extreme tenacity and resourcefulness – true survivors who find ways to withstand the inhospitable conditions that are imposed upon them. In several noticeable cases, even when left with painfully limited sets of options, they charge themselves with a special energy that they later put in the service of change, coiling back in the slow, quiet moments Kaurismäki is so well known for like a spring launcher in a pinball machine, destined to eventually break out of their lulls and go into action. This patient process is chronicled with remarkable discipline over the course of The Match Factory Girl (Tulitikkutehtaan tyttö, 1990), still possibly Kaurismäki’s bleakest film to date, in which Kati Outinen’s unforgettable Iris quietly endures a steady barrage of monotony, neglect, and cruelty until, passing a breaking point, she decides to claim vengeance against the ones who have wronged her, including her mother (Elina Salo), stepfather (Esko Nikkari), and one-time lover (Vesa Vierikko). In a far more positive key, Taisto (Turo Pajala), the likeable hero of Ariel (1988), takes off in his early scenes like a renegade comet after his coalmine is shut down and his father, a fellow miner, promptly kills himself. Without stopping to mourn or reflect, he withdraws all his money from his bank account and soars out of the frozen Lapland wastes in his inherited white Cadillac towards the lights of Helsinki, where he then follows an erratic zigzag course of fleeting employment, romance, rotten luck, imprisonment, crime, and escape. Kaurismäki’s other films may seem more sober and focused than the breathless Ariel, which in seventy-two minutes packs in more creativity and entertainment value than most franchises, but they similarly place priority on the importance of movement and progress, whether the characters are searching for fresh sources of income, love, better jobs, or simply some shelter or alleviation from life’s harsh winds. In some cases, they simply can’t keep still: in I Hired a Contract Killer (1990), French ex-pat Henri (Jean-Pierre Léaud), newly invigorated by his love for a flower girl named Margaret (Margi Clarke), inexplicably ignores the danger of the assassin (Kenneth Colley) out to kill him and leaves his London hideout to purchase a pair of sunglasses (from Kaurismäki himself, no less) and savor the pleasures of fresh air, a drink, and an afternoon set by Joe Strummer in a pub – a carpe diem impulse that only plunges him into deeper trouble when he gets mistakenly involved in a jewelry store heist. There is a similar moment in Le Havre (2011) when Idrissa (Blondin Miguel), the young African refugee who unexpectedly lands in the titular port city and finds protection from the local authorities with shoe shiner Marcel Marx (André Wilms), takes off to earn some money at the train station with the old man’s shoeshine kit in a sincere effort to repay his debt. The irresistible urge to do something, to get back up and make a change instead of remaining in a fixed state of misery and defeat thankfully strikes again and again in Aki’s movies, motivating his characters to seek out both temporary sources of relief (booze, cigarettes, food, music) and more lasting solutions (comfortable living conditions, financial security, independence, love) in response to the world’s challenges. Kaurismäki habitually keeps his films trimmed down to moderate running times with a bare minimum of fat, if any at all; they are compact, wonderfully propulsive engines of narrative designed to illustrate the extraordinary power of will and determination under ever-imperfect circumstances.
Kaurismäki can be grouped with such other contemporary auteurs as Pedro Almodóvar, Wes Anderson, Jean-Pierre Jeunet, and Quentin Tarantino because, like them, he has successfully constructed his own lushly colourful, instantly identifiable cinematic realm complete with its own look, feel, and laws of physics while also firmly asserting his status as a voracious and passionate cinephile. With the same amusingly gruff tone he reserves for remarks about the insignificance of his own work and downward trajectory of the human race, he upholds a steadfast devotion to the legendary artists and films of film history while generally regarding current trends and tastes – especially those dictated by Hollywood – with wariness and disdain. His homages to the greats of French cinema alone are myriad, ranging from his casting of Léaud, Pierre Etaix, and Louis Malle to the repeated utterance of the name Becker by his characters to similarly cheeky references to Marcel Carné and his regular leading lady Arletty to the posters for Bresson’s L’Argent (1983) and Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante (1934) on display in the movie theatre in Drifting Clouds (Kauas pilvet karkaavat, 1996). More of his beloved film gods hail from all over the rest of the globe, including America (Chaplin, Samuel Fuller, John Cassavettes), England (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger), and Italy (De Sica). Japan is an especially important territory on the map of his cinematic heritage if only for one name in particular: Yasujiro Ozu. In Talking With Ozu, a 1993 tribute to the master made in honour of the ninetieth anniversary of his birth, Kaurismäki approaches two photographs of Ozu perched on an easel in the cavernous space of an old, empty factory, respectfully bows to them, takes a seat, and, as he lights a cigarette, describes the fateful moment in 1976 when his older brother Mika took him to the British Film Institute in London to see Tokyo Story (Tokyo monogatari, 1953). “After that, I gave up my dreams about literature. I decided to begin my search for a red kettle,” he says, and since then, that search has remained ongoing. Ozu’s dedication to people with ordinary lives and jobs, preference for restraint and tranquility over action and violence, skepticism towards modernity, eye for composition and colour, and love of alcohol have all saturated Kaurismäki’s work, albeit refracted through the prism of the latter’s dry Finnish temperament. Le Havre shows the reverence still going strong, especially with Wilms and Outinen’s older married couple, whose deeply touching bond of love, familiarity, and friendship echoes the similarly time-honed relationship between Chishu Ryu and Chieko Higashiyama’s in Tokyo Story, and the film’s perfect final shot of a cherry tree in bloom, which could have come from any one of Ozu’s colour films. Some of Kaurismäki’s very best qualities – especially his patience, grace, maturity, and insight into people and the common disappointments they face – owe a major debt to Ozu.
As for other potential counterparts to Kaurismäki that hail from Japanese cinema, the first name one is likely to recommend is Mikio Naruse. In even greater detail than Ozu did, Naruse examined the harsh conditions of life and work in the modern era, specializing in strong female characters caught in the overwhelming perils of Japan’s patriarchal society. His heroines bravely endure tough jobs, dissatisfying living conditions, familial strife, romantic letdowns, and poor marriage prospects, all of which holding them back from achieving those simple yet diabolically elusive goals of happiness and contentment in their lives. As in Kaurismäki’s films, money is frequently at the core of such problems, whether in the form of owed debts, bills that need to be paid, or funds required to get fresh enterprises off the ground. Keiko (Hideko Takamine), the middle-aged bar hostess at the centre of Naruse’s 1960 masterpiece When a Woman Ascends the Stairs (Onna ga kaidan wo agaru toki), could easily be considered a spiritual predecessor to Outinen’s equally heroic head waitress Ilona in Drifting Clouds – but that’s a subject for a whole other comparative analysis.
While Ozu and Naruse are easy matches for Kaurismäki, Akira Kurosawa initially comes across as a more unlikely counterpart. Even though both men have ventured into genre territory – specifically sharing a common taste for film noir – Kurosawa is more readily identifiable as an entertainer and enjoys a broader appeal among audiences as such. His best known films are grand, elegantly crafted, red-blooded adventures and moral tales set in the mythic landscape of Japan’s past, featuring unforgettable characters, exhilarating action sequences, and torrents of raw emotion. The earthy thumping of horses’ hooves on soil, fierce downpours of rain from the heavens, spongy crackles of steel piercing flesh, and whipcrack reports of rifles make up just a portion of the sensual tapestry that is such an intrinsic part of his wild realm of shoguns, castles, samurai, ronin, and bandits. So visceral is this world in which Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai, 1954), Throne of Blood (Kumonosu-jo, 1957), The Hidden Fortress (Kakushi toride no san akunin, 1958), Yojimbo (1961), Sanjuro (Tsubaki Sanjuro, 1962), Kagemusha (1980), and Ran (1985) take place that it is a continual surprise to return to the films of his set in contemporary times. Yet whether they be period or contemporary pieces, genre works or less conventional arthouse forays, running through all of Kurosawa’s films is a fascination with human beings and the various factors that prevent them from achieving peace and cooperation: greed, corruption, ignorance, violence, blind lust. At his most critical, Kurosawa can be nothing less than damning of the utter cruelty humans unleash against one another, the most potent example being Ran with its quarrelling family members, coolly calculated acts of viciousness, treacherous plots, and rivers of blood. This dark outlook permeates some of his noir films as well, as indicated by the meaninglessness of the evil and suffering dispensed in The Bad Sleep Well (Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru, 1960) and High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku, 1963). But in his more merciful moods, Kurosawa will include a measure of hope that redeems the human race and counteracts its more negative qualities. In Seven Samurai, while the samurai class may be responsible for creating the bandits who killed Kikuchiyo’s (Toshiro Mifune) parents and threaten the peasant village, it also produced the titular seven heroes who selflessly defend the farmers from the approaching raiders. Though obsessed with claiming a hidden stash of gold for themselves, The Hidden Fortress’ central peasant duo (Minoru Chiaki and Kamatari Fujiwara) play their own parts in the fugitive Princess Yuki’s (Misa Uehara) successful passage to safety and are honored as heroes for doing so. And the priest (Chiaki) who is sickened by the grotesque mess of lies and deception that gives Rashomon its reputation as a masterwork of philosophical filmmaking finds he is able to hold on to his faith in humanity after the woodcutter he briefly crosses paths with (Takashi Shimura) adopts an abandoned child into his already full home. Good deeds abound throughout Kurosawa’s cinema, illuminating his genuine, enduring compassion for people despite their more horrific capabilities.
Upon careful consideration of their techniques and motivations, the intrepid film viewer may be pleasantly surprised to discover that, for all of their differences, Akira Kurosawa and Aki Kaurismäki in fact make rather fitting counterparts, united by a common tendency towards sharp, relevant social criticism and a rare command of the medium. One Wonderful Sunday (Subarashiki nichiyobi, 1947) and Dodes’ka-den (1970), two of Kurosawa’s most underrated films, best highlight the intriguing similarities the two A.K.s share in terms of subject matter, moral values, and craftsmanship. Indeed, these two contemporary tales of impoverished misfits can easily be appreciated as Japanese forays into the well-tread turf of working class heroes that Kaurismäki, years later, would make his own throughout his career. One Wonderful Sunday especially feels as though it could be relocated from postwar Tokyo to modern day Helsinki – or any other city, for that matter – while keeping its narrative completely intact, so simple and universal is its premise. Co-written by Kurosawa and his childhood friend Keinosuke Uekusa, it tells the story of Yuzo (Isao Numazaki) and Masako (Chieko Nakakita), two young lovers who meet in Tokyo for their weekly Sunday date only to discover they have just thirty-five yen between the two of them for the entire day. So begins the couple’s winding odyssey through the various class realms of the war-rattled capital, which opens their eyes a little wider to the gulfs of disparity that surround them. Masako does her best to maintain an optimistic attitude for both of them while Yuzo, riddled with humiliation and depression over his shortcomings, repeatedly bounces between giddy, childlike joy and crippling gloom. The hard conditions of reality never recede too far from sight: even what is supposed to be a simple, carefree visit to the zoo turns into a montage of reminders of what one needs to survive in comfort – which, in most cases, the animals have in far greater abundance than the humans. Yuzo’s preoccupation with not having money and always feeling inferior gets the better of him in one especially somber sequence in which he scares Masako away with his desperate advances and, in a courageous amount of screen time, is left with his loneliness and regret in his tiny apartment while the world outside is pummeled with rainfall. Fortunately, Masako counters his worst tendencies with her everlasting faith in their love and the power of dreams. They continue onwards motivated by the tantalizing yet achingly modest goals of opening their own café, sharing a home, and living a healthy and happy life together.
Like One Wonderful Sunday, Kaurismäki’s Drifting Clouds is anchored and driven by the incredible bond between two courageous lovers who are battered and tested by the world around them. While Yuzo and Masako’s relationship still bears traces of tentativeness on account of their youth, the one between Ilona and her husband Lauri (Kari Väänänen) is far more mature, grounded, and well-defined. Evident from the very first scene they share together in which Ilona climbs aboard the Helsinki streetcar he drives for a living and wordlessly plants a kiss on his cheek, it’s clear that these are two people who have built a solid foundation of trust, understanding, and fondness for each other. It is that foundation that sees them through hard times when Lauri is laid off and Ilona’s restaurant closes down shortly after, casting the two adrift in the frightening wilderness of unemployment. Though their respective central couples are at markedly different stages in their lives together, One Wonderful Sunday and Drifting Clouds both stand out for their refreshing focus on healthy, touchingly rendered monogamous relationships between lovers with a strong sense of history between them. So often in the movies, priority is given to the inception of romance or conflicts both petty and momentous that threaten to snuff out the flame while well-made testaments to the wonders and nuances of harmonious, deep-rooted intimacy between true life partners are few and far between. There is simply an inherent sense of rightness in the way Lauri comforts Ilona with an arm around her and a gentle kiss on her head after she comes home depressed from seeing the wretched beer hole where she must work to bring in money just as there is in the way she comforts him when he is crushed after failing a decisive medical examination for a new job and loses his license. The harsh conditions of economic necessity put Ilona and Lauri’s marriage to the test, in the process highlighting its rare strength and durability. Though they live in a different city, culture, chapter of history, and stage in their relationship, Yuzo and Masako are confronted with precisely the same kinds of troubles, and their young love is also nearly brought to its breaking point by the daunting, inhumane pressures of finding work and money. There is little room for matters of the heart in the rugged landscape of capitalist society, which is why the rare kinds of pairings seen in Drifting Clouds and One Wonderful Sunday are so inspiring and beautiful. Ilona, Lauri, Masako, and Yuzo may have to scrimp and save in order to get by, but the love they have and strength they draw from it are worth more than all the money in the world.
One Wonderful Sunday and Drifting Clouds also owe a great deal of their resonance to the extremely identifiable nature of their central protagonists. Kurosawa dresses Yuzo in a fedora, white collared shirt, tie, scarf, and trench coat and Masako in a light raincoat while Kaurismäki’s poker-faced spouses are given a brown leather jacket (for Lauri) and fashionable red coat and scarf (for Ilona) when they aren’t wearing their work uniforms – all perfectly chosen items of apparel that suit their owners and reflect the universal positions they hold in the economic food chain. Tellingly, both Lauri and Masako’s shoes are shown to be in desperate need of repair at certain points in their respective films, yet still they tread on in them one step at a time. Their clothes and those of their partners serve not only as outward signifiers of their personalities, but also as protective suits of armour that keep their senses of dignity intact – sometimes just barely – against the stones and spears of pennilessness, joblessness, judgment, and degrading work taken to keep head above water. For Lauri and Yuzo especially, because they are both stubborn, proud men who strive to care for their lovers, dignity is an especially precious and vulnerable commodity made all the more so by their inability to properly fulfill their duties. Tellingly, many of Kaurismäki’s protagonists are weaklings with frail senses of self-esteem, and there are several instances in his films in which they fall prey to bullies. That is what happens to Lauri when he goes to get Ilona’s pay from the beer hole’s scummy manager, whose goons bloody him up so much that he shamefully hides from Ilona until he has healed enough to show his face to her again. A similar scene occurs in One Wonderful Sunday in which Yuzo and Masako’s plan to see a concert of Franz Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony is thwarted by selfish scalpers who buy up all the available tickets in their price range, pushing Yuzo to unwisely start a fight that he loses, leaving him utterly defeated. Later on, the film begins its memorable climax with a jarring but nobly intended bit of experimentation by Kurosawa in which Masako breaks the fourth wall in an empty amphitheatre and beseeches us, the film’s audience, to applaud in support of struggling young lovers like her and Yuzo. Encouraged by this gesture that the audience has theoretically – and hopefully – provided, Yuzo then takes to the stage and successfully conducts the Unfinished Symphony for Masako and the rest of us. Kurosawa and cinematographer Asakazu Nakai’s gliding camera perfectly compliments the notes of Schubert’s music and the invisible currents of emotion flowing between Yuzo, Masako, and the audience. Though it is far too saccharine a moment to ever grace one of Kaurismäki’s films, the sentiment behind it matches what he has expressed again and again: when the world throws up obstacles in the path towards comfort and happiness, love and hope will always remain invaluable sources of support for life’s weary travellers to draw from.
Kurosawa’s films regularly explore the power of dreams and fantasy, illustrating the ways they can complement, lighten, or, in extreme cases, completely overwhelm reality. In One Wonderful Sunday, Yuzo and Masako share the goal of opening a café together one day – a simple, charming spot with good coffee for fair prices, homemade cakes, small tables – “For lovers,” insists Masako – and a sign in cobalt blue enamel on the door identifying the place as “The Hyacinth – A Café For the Masses.” After the devastating defeat at the concert hall, the dream boosts their spirits when they map out the shop in a rubble-strewn lot and discuss their carefully considered ideas about what the business’ design and character will be like. The café is even more meaningful a dream place than the home Yuzo and Masako hope to one day share together, as it not only represents a place for their own well being, but also an opportunity for wholesome communal interaction and long-term commercial prosperity.
Entrepreneurship and the irreplaceable sense of independence that comes with it also occasionally beckon to and tempt Kaurismäki’s characters, offering a promising avenue towards positive change. In Drifting Clouds, after all the key players run a brutal gauntlet of failure, fear, and discouragement, Ilona’s former restaurant colleague Melartin (Sakari Kuosmanen), himself out of work and at the end of his rope, suggests to her the simple yet brilliant idea of her opening her own restaurant – a fresh start where Ilona and her colleagues can rebuild their lives and return to doing what they know and love for a living. The final act that follows is one of the highlights of Kaurismäki’s entire career, a moving testament to ingenuity, persistence, and teamwork. The effort that goes into making Ilona’s restaurant a reality constitutes a tremendously inspiring feat of willpower, ultimately providing the key distinction between Drifting Clouds and One Wonderful Sunday. The dream of the Hyacinth Café and the solace Yuzo and Masako draw from it are moving in their own rights, but the Hyacinth only ever remains a dream for the duration of the film – a sweet dream, but nonetheless intangible, distant, and still unrealized by the time the film ends. Though elsewhere in his career Kurosawa proves himself to be a true master of action and plot, One Wonderful Sunday is an oddly static film for him, more a descriptive mosaic of postwar Japanese society than a conventional narrative-driven work, which is partially an inevitable result of the film’s single-day timeframe. Yuzo and Masako may cover a fair bit of ground in their journey throughout Tokyo together and learn much about themselves in the process, but on a material level, their lots in life at the end of the film are pretty much unchanged from how they were at the start, whereas Ilona and Lauri’s adventures depict a far more extensive array of rises, falls, stratagems, failures, and victories in their bumpy road from financial and emotional stability to despair and back again. Aided by luck and love, they push forwards, forging their own paths to new horizons.
The years between 1963 and 1970 mark an important transition period for Akira Kurosawa, yielding two of his most fascinating and moving creations. After High and Low, he decided to adapt Shugoro Yamamoto’s book Tales of Red Beard’s Examinations (Akahige shinryotan), a collection of stories that revolve around a clinic in nineteenth-century Edo. The film’s production period lasted two years, during which Kurosawa oversaw the construction of large-scale, period-specific sets and the gathering and preparation of properly aged materials ranging from lumber and roofing to costumes, props, and bedding, all in order to achieve a comprehensive impression of authenticity. Red Beard (Akahige, 1965) is one of Kurosawa’s most impressive works for its perfect fusion of aesthetics and emotional resonance, though it was also one of his most costly. It is the last film he ever made in black-and-white and the last he made with Mifune, his legendary onscreen collaborator for sixteen films. In the years following Red Beard’s completion, Kurosawa became involved with Twentieth Century Fox’s World War II epic Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) as director of the Japanese segments, but was eventually fired for squandering too much of the studio’s time and money. Discouraged and eager to reaffirm his talent after this failure, he began the Club of the Four Knights, a new production company co-founded with fellow celebrated directors Kon Ichikawa, Keisuke Kinoshita, and Masaki Kobayashi. Though inspiring in its concept and sincerity, the Club only lasted long enough to produce one film: Kurosawa’s Dodes’ka-den, which failed to re-launch his commercial prospects as he had hoped, yet is still a significant work in his evolution as an artist. Dodes’ka-den completes the arc that began with Red Beard while contrasting with it in a number of respects – it was Kurosawa’s first vibrant foray into colour, took only a month to shoot, was filmed in the standard-ratio 35mm format he had used years ago before adopting the anamorphic widescreen format in the late 1950s and 1960s, and features such bold stylistic touches as zooms and painted cycloramas. It was a grand adventure for the master at a time when he was most in need of one.
Since Red Beard and Dodes’ka-den are both based on Yamamoto’s writing – the latter is adapted from his book The Town Without Seasons (Kisetsu no nai machi) – it is only fitting that they contain similar subjects and narrative structures. Red Beard uses the story of a proud young doctor (Yuzo Kayama) and his rocky mentorship under the wise clinic director Kyojio Niide (Mifune) as a sturdy framework for its unfortunate characters’ various accounts of love, loss, atonement, abuse, and healing. Dodes’ka-den is even freer with its narrative approach, jumping between the assorted lives of a trash-filled Tokyo slum’s inhabitants. The nature of the film’s setting and characters recalls the similarly themed The Lower Depths (Donzoko, 1957), but where that film is an overly simplistic essay on poverty-induced misery, Dodes’ka-den reaches a far greater level of complexity with its drastic tonal shifts, memorable performances, and rich artistry.
Dodes’ka-den tells of lives compromised, stunted, swayed, and shaken by life’s harshest winds, all rerouted to the purgatorial common ground of the slum where some scraps of normalcy and routine remain amidst conditions of extreme need. A mother (Kin Sugai) runs a food stall while looking after Rokuchan (Yoshitaka Zushi, who had previously appeared in Red Beard as the loveable urchin Chobo), her simple-minded son who drives his imaginary trolley through the decaying neighbourhood while chanting the rhythmic sound that gives the film its peculiar name. Mr. Shima (Junzaburo Ban), a gentleman with a snort-inducing tic, jerkily walks to work dressed in his hat, waistcoat, tie, and dress shoes and politely greets the group of housewives eternally perched around the town’s communal water spigot every morning, the very image of politeness and dignity. Offering a welcome dose of absurdist comic relief, Hatsu (Kunie Tanaka) and Matsuo (Hisashi Igawa) are fellow day labourers and the best of friends who regularly drink together and, upon returning home smashed out of their minds, swap wives without the slightest trace of resentment – or hangover, for that matter – afterwards. Mr. Tanba (Atsushi Watanabe), the slum’s village elder, consistently maintains a spirit of generosity and calm sensibility whether he is talking down a crazed wannabe swordsman, helping a suicidal man achieve his final wish, or unexpectedly aiding a thief he finds in his home in the middle of the night.
The key to Dodes’ka-den’s profound emotional impact lies in the various ways in which humour and hope, those tools so skillfully wielded by Kaurismäki, are embedded into deeply depressing situations, not unlike the lighter portions of Toru Takemitsu’s score that play throughout the film. The more uplifting tales all tellingly depict remarkable gestures of unconditional love and devotion, bringing the characters’ enduring goodness and humanity into sharp focus. The definitive moment in Mr. Shima’s storyline arrives when he returns home accompanied by three of his colleagues. They are immediately made uncomfortable by the rude manner in which Shima’s formidable wife (Kiyoko Tange) receives them before leaving to take a bath. They urge Shima to punish her for such awful behaviour for his own sake rather than theirs, which triggers a surprising burst of anger from the usually cheery businessman. Shima disarms their hasty judgments with an emotional account of his wife’s extraordinary loyalty to him during some of the hardest periods in their lives, instinctively and unquestionably defending his lifelong companion. In another narrative strand, an affectionate father (Shinsuke Minami) whose many children are in fact the offspring of his wife’s neighbourhood lovers makes it clear to the kids that he will always consider them his own and urges them to likewise see him as their true father despite what bullies might say. And Katsuko (Tomoko Yamazaki), a painfully withdrawn girl who is overworked and sexually abused by her contemptible uncle (Tatsuo Matsumura) is offered support and friendship by a tirelessly devoted sake delivery boy (Masahiko Kametani).
Even more than One Wonderful Sunday, and in the same vein as The Lower Depths, Dodes’ka-den is very much a film of stasis in which Kurosawa applies his energies towards painting a vast, multifaceted portrait of humanity bearing his keen observations on human nature. Tellingly, most of the characters remain isolated from each other within their storylines, together making up that strangest of things: an anti-social community – or, as Jean-Luc Godard put so well, a band of outsiders. Though they move along their respective courses and act upon motivations of love and lust, selflessness and greed, wisdom and folly, Dodes’ka-den’s characters are seemingly fated to remain within the restricting boundaries of the refuse-strewn wasteland they all call home. Whether any of them will ever be able to find a way out and return to a place of light and health lies beyond the film’s concerns, which are solely based upon the locked relationship between the slum’s disheartening environment and the various ways its inhabitants endure and uphold their humanity within it, some managing better than others.
On the other side of the same coin lies Aki Kaurismäki’s The Man Without a Past (Mies vailla menneisyyttä, 2002). Markku Peltola stars as a man who is immediately struck by misfortune upon his arrival in Helsinki when three thugs beat him up and rob him of his money and, with a few whacks to the head, his memory. After being declared dead in the hospital, the newly rendered amnesiac miraculously awakens and sets out into the world once more, winding up in a shantytown on the city’s outskirts not too dissimilar from Dodes’ka-den’s main setting. There, he is nursed back to health by a kind-hearted family who live in a shipping container, finds a container of his own with the help of a comically stern security guard (Kuosmanen), and, without missing a beat, begins to build a new life for himself from scratch.
Like Drifting Clouds, The Man Without a Past is a film that champions communal solidarity, forward motion, and activity as an effective response to adversity. Once he is well enough to do so, the mysterious stranger wastes little time applying himself to a series of constructive projects that include cleaning up his newly acquired container, setting up his electricity, claiming and repairing a jukebox full of blues and rock, planting potatoes, upgrading his wardrobe, and seeking employment so he can pay his first month of rent in advance, all accomplished with the help of the kind-hearted strangers around him. In this swift-paced succession of scenes, Kaurismäki depicts a perfect schematic of the basics of human survival in modern society, charting his hero’s progress with detectable empathy and well-deployed doses of comedy and pathos. Eventually, our hero works his way up to wooing Irma (Outinen), a Salvation Army officer who helps him regain his confidence and get a job with her organization – which in turn inspires the shy woman to break out of her shell – guiding the Salvation Army band towards a hipper, more rock-infused sound, and rediscovering his original talent for welding. Every step of the way, Kaurismäki keeps his protagonist’s goals on a practical, realistic scale, in the process making the film an inspiring tribute to the small miracles that can be brought about by simply putting one foot in front of the other. In stark contrast, the beggar (Noboru Mitani) and his son (Hiroyuki Kawase) in Dodes’ka-den who neglect the pressing requirements of simple survival in favour of increasingly elaborate visions of their dream house disturbingly illustrate the dangers of veering too far from reality as a means of coping with it. And unlike Yuzo and Masako’s Hyacinth Café, the dream house is not a place that might one day serve as a means of positive change for both the dreamers and their community, but rather a hollow, dead-end construct destined to forever be an unobtainable mirage for the beggars, who whittle away their days talking about it while doing nothing to actually make it a tangible possibility. Kaurismäki’s protagonists in Drifting Clouds and The Man Without a Past are far more realistic in the ways they manage their dreams, whether it means drawing up budgets, applying for bank loans, trying their luck in a casino, and recruiting past colleagues, as Ilona and Lauri do to launch their new restaurant, or turning to even more uncertain methods of support and sustenance. Similarly, unlike Dodes’ka-den’s traumatized, ghoulish Hei (Hiroshi Akutagawa), who is unable to move past the betrayal he suffered from Ocho (Tomoko Naraoka), his unfaithful lover, years ago, or the suicidal man who visits Mr. Tanba seeking the relief of death after having lost all the pleasures and luxuries he once enjoyed as a prosperous kimono shop owner, Kaurismäki’s characters are unlikely to negatively dwell on the past and become stuck in a rut that will consume them for the rest of their lives. “Never give up. Life goes forwards, not backwards. You’d be in trouble if it did.” So Nieminen (Juhani Niemelä), the memory-deprived stranger’s host and new friend, tells him during a relaxed Friday night outing to a beer bar, voicing in Kaurismäki’s elegantly simple fashion not only one of the defining principles of his films, but also one of the secrets to living a healthy and productive life.
One Wonderful Sunday, Dodes’ka-den, Drifting Clouds, and The Man Without a Past are all masterpieces of humanist cinema. They all impart valuable instruction on how to work with what you’ve got in life, even if it amounts to very little. They all tell you how to do so with the utmost dignity and courage. They all place faith in the everlasting possibility that lights can be sparked in the dusk and shadows can be banished from paradise. They all champion those forces that can defeat misery and bring back happiness, be they dreams and plans for the future, acts of charity, love, or luck. They show that such forces can amount to as little as a shared beer or cup of coffee, a comforting hand on a shoulder, or a single date with someone special, and yet can still mean so much. Most of all, they provide that bit of faith in yourself and other people that you sometimes need to keep moving forward despite the troubles that hinder your steps.