Although it has a large number of vocal supporters, Dodes'ka-den is best known for being the biggest disaster in Akira Kurosawa's half-century career. The film killed the potential of the production company, The Club of Four Knights, that Kurosawa had formed with three other Japanese masters, Masaki Kobayashi, Kon Ichikawa, and Keisuke Kinoshita, a sort of United Artists for the struggling Japanese film industry of the late 1960s. Its commercial failure ensured they would never produce another film. It also drove Kurosawa into a depression, and the director - convinced he would never make a film again - attempted suicide the following year. As Roger Ebert's mildly positive review of the film indicates, the film was not even released in the US until 1975.
All of these are pretty hard to imagine considering the success Kurosawa's work had seen both in Japan and the US. Kurosawa almost single-handedly popularized samurai films in America, and along with Ingmar Bergman and Federico Fellini led the charge of Foreign films into domestic theaters. In Japan, his work had long ago entered the canon next to films by the likes of Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi. So the idea that a director of this calibre could not get work seems like one of the great crimes in cinema, while the notion that someone as universally loved and singularly successful as Kurosawa could sink so low as to want to commit suicide certainly provides a sobering perspective on professional accomplishments. Taken together, these unique events make Dodes'ka-den a vital piece of the director's career completely apart from the film's actual content.
This might make the actual movie seem slight when you actually get around to watching it. Although it marks the first time Kurosawa used color and represents a break from the more structurally conventional films of his past, Dodes'ka-den doesn't present any significant new themes for the director's career. Yes, these are different characters and a different tone from his adaptation of The Lower Depths, but Kurosawa had visited the bottom economic rung of society before. And while the compilation of vignettes is unusual, it's been done enough times to require more than novelty to maintain interest. Dodes'ka-den wasn't able to succeed in this regard - while there were plenty of pleasing and/or moving moments in the film, the overall production seems less than the sum of its parts. While it's not enough to explain the film's failure, it makes it possibly my least favorite Kurosawa film in the Collection.