Dodes’ka-den

Kurosawa’s 1970 Dodesu ka-den (どです か でん) was his first color film and the first film he released in five years after going though a rough experience directing a film for 20th Century Fox, a studio that didn’t trust him and spread rumors about him having had a nervous break down. To prove his detractors wrong, Kurosawa brought a collection of short stories to life on film.

Set in a post-war slum, Dodesu ka-den follows a group of beautiful or actually mainly grubby losers, most of whom aren’t regulars at the public bath. The story begins with a boy we’d now consider on the autism spectrum. He begins his day praying with his mother who’s distraught by his behavior. Every day, this boy, who lives out the fantasy that he’s a trolley driver by pantomiming every action of one. The actor’s skill would give Marcel Marceau a run for his money. The boy meticulously follows the rules of trolley service and scolds anyone who’s accidentally sitting on his “tracks.” Of course, he’s the prime target of taunting neighborhood boys.

There’s a group of half a dozen housewives who spend their days overseeing the comings and goings of everyone in the surrounding shanties. They gossip about the two women who’re married to men seemingly competing to be the town drunk and who casually swap their husbands from night to night. These women are little better than their husbands in terms of temperance or temperament.

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Another woman has five children and another on the way. Each child has a different father. She’s selfish and doesn’t care for anyone else. The scene when her current “husband” comforts the kids who’re crying because their pals have told them that each one has a different father and that this good-natured guy is not their “real” dad, was a highlight.

The scenes with the homeless dreamer who has his son beg for food and helps the young boy keep his spirits up by sharing his imagined view of the glorious house they’ll one day have with a English gate, a Scottish living room, and a swimming pool, were poignant and touching.

One of my favorite characters was an engraver who was the one sensible person in the neighborhood. He quietly made the right decision or said the right thing whenever someone was on the brink.

The film doesn’t have a typical story structure where people are facing a defined problem and its resolved by the end. Most of the characters had bleak existences that would make a Dickens character look privileged. Yet the film does offer respect and hope. Sometimes that hope was the charactes’s greatest flaw.

Mr. Thank You

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Arigato-san or Mr. Thank You in English is a simple, rather slow-moving film that shows Japan in the depression of The hero, Arigato-san is a bus driver known up and down his rural route as “Mr. Thank You” because he yells a cheery “Thank you!” to everyone he passes on the road.

The plot isn’t much and this isn’t a film for anyone who needs action, even the usual dose of action. However the film does make an impact at the end. Mr. Arigato is the epitome of kindness. He stops whenever someone flags him down. Then he’ll carry messages to relatives down the road or pick up items for people who ask him to. As usual, the level of service in Japan is and was astounding.

On the bus are a mother who’s taking her pretty young daughter to the city to sell her to a brothel (not a fancy geisha house, a brothel of which there were plenty), a chatty citified woman who smokes and drinks and shares her flask liberally with her fellow passengers, a fuddy-duddy salesman who looks very successful and leers and the young women, and an array of short term riders from the countryside.

One cultural note that struck me was that one couple who were off to attend a wedding got right off the bus and decided to walk rather than share a bus with someone who was going to a wake. That would have bad luck for their relative who was getting married. The film is striking in how clearly it shows the poverty in Japan in 1936.

All in all, Mr. Thank You isn’t a must see and even though it’s just 57 minutes long it did drag for me. Probably when it came out, a Japanese audience would have no complaints about the pace. If you have a keen interest in Japanese culture or film history, this is worth seeing.

Bicycle Thieves

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I’ve heard that Bicycle Thief is a classic film but never saw it — till now. I got the DVD, and see that the title’s been correctly translated to Bicycle Thieves, which makes more sense. (Bravo, Criterion Collection!)

I wasn’t sure what I expected, but I didn’t expect the emotional power this simple movie packed.

In a nutshell, Bicycle Thieves shows the poverty of post-WWII Italy. Many men stand in line for job opportunities. Only a couple will get anything. Since he has a bicycle, Antonio Ricci is lucky enough to get a job putting up posters. He must have a bike. The first problem is that his bike has been pawned. It recoup it his wife Maria pawns the family’s sheets, sheets they got as wedding presents. Since this job will pay well and steadily and since there’s nothing else of value, pawning the sheets seems sensible. Though I did have a feeling of apprehension as soon as they got their money.

Antonio uses most of the money to recover his bike and starts work. As the title suggests it isn’t long before some ne’er-do-well, someone just as needy as Antonio steals the bike. The rest of the movie is the search for the thief and the bike. While it seems like little can be done with such a simple problem, director DeSica presents a journey through impoverished Rome that breaks your heart and shows you the self-absorbed rich, the dangers of pedophiles, the ties between a father and a son and the longing for better by people who’re more than willing to work for what they get.

The ending is particularly moving and well earned. The emotional journey we’re taken on is real. As a neo-realistic film Bicycle Thieves portrays life as it probably really was for many. I could definitely watch this again and again.

Must Read: Krugman on Poverty & Inequality

In I got a good tip from The Atlantic Wire’s email today’s on a good piece in The N.Y. Times:

The fact that “American capitalism as currently constituted is undermining the foundations of middle-class society” shouldn’t be up for argument, Krugman writes. “But it is, of course. Partly this reflects Upton Sinclair’s famous dictum: It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it,” Krugman argues. “I’ve noted before that conservatives seem fixated on the notion that poverty is basically the result of character problems among the poor. This may once have had a grain of truth to it, but for the past three decades and more the main obstacle facing the poor has been the lack of jobs paying decent wages. But the myth of the undeserving poor persists, and so does a counterpart myth, that of the deserving rich,” he writes. Americans are wealthy because they made the right choices, the story goes. “But the main thing about this myth is that it misidentifies the winners from growing inequality. White-collar professionals, even if married to each other, are only doing O.K.” It’s the top 0.1 percent that are growing in wealth. The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent tweets, “Nice takedown of David Brooks’ latest on inequality from @NYTimeskrugman (without ever mentioning Brooks’ name).”

The full editorial is here.

Wrong Analogy

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Often people compare a government‘s budget to a family budget. It’s sort of an easy, automatic thought. “If  I have to live within my means, the government should.”

Yet if you think it through that is just poor thinking. Your family has no or little defense spending. Maybe you’ve got an alarm service, but you don’t need to wage war. If you want to, you can donate to a charity, here or abroad, but if you don’t what are the repercussions? Zip. Don’t compare your kids’ piano lessons or science fair project expenses to the NEA or scientific research.  How many employees does the average family have? The government has a lot more budget items. Period. End of story.

Your number and type of dependents differs immensely. The average family has something like 2.2 children. Not millions and you choose that number pretty much. The government can’t choose how many poor people there will be in the same way.

Our government does pay its bills, just like most families pay their’s. Actually, it’s probably a lot better at doing so.

Also, so many people conveniently forget that credit card debt isn’t the only debt a family has. Factor in the mortgage and car payments and most families, respectable, hard-working, All-Americans have a lot of debt. And they get a break on their taxes for some of that debt. Who subsidizes the government for getting in debt as a form of behavior reinforcement?

So can we just stop using this poor analogy? Probably not. It’s quite ingrained and handy for those who don’t like to think anew.

Here are some articles that address this very issue: