#18 in my ranking of Akira Kurosawa’s filmography.
Adapted from the play of the same name by Russian author Maxim Gorky, The Lower Depths is an effort on Kurosawa’s part to be experimental to a small degree. Trying to replicate the theatrical experience in film form, it’s a far more engaging and cinematic effort to film a play than the one movie I keep in mind for filmed plays, Alfred Hitchcock’s Juno and the Paycock, made under far different circumstances. Given sixty filming days, Kurosawa brought some of the best Japanese actors of the time together on a handful of sets to help give the play real visual life and strong characterization from his actors.
Set in a single slum of a tenement building where about a dozen people are living in a single, large room with their landlord across the alley in a nicer house, the film is a slice of life look at these people living in abject poverty. Never given a specific timeframe, we watch the ins and outs of these lives over the course of a few days where dramatic events unfold. There is a thief, Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune), who uses a police deputy as a fence, who is having an affair with Osugi (Isuzu Yamada), the landlord’s wife but is also cozying up to Osugi’s younger, prettier sister Okayo (Kyoko Kagawa). The landlord, Rokubei (Nakamura Ganjiro), has no idea of the affair. A cooper, Tomekichi (Eijiro Tono), is indifferent to his wife slowly dying on the mat behind where he works. There’s an ex-samurai, Tonosama (Minoru Chiaki), who reminisces about the days when he had seen lords. There’s a prostitute, Osen (Akemi Negishi), who is being driven to drink by the hopelessness of her situation. Into all of this wanders a kindly old man, Kahei (Bokuzen Hidari).
In a cast of characters this large, I think Kahei ends up the closest we get to a central character. He ends up part of every other story as he offers help and advice to those around him. He’s a generally kind soul, reminding me of Kameda in The Idiot but not quite as obviously purely good. Does he lie to the old woman dying about the nature of life after death? A small argument breaks out afterwards amongst some of the tenants about it (recalling Rashomon and Ikiru). Does he lie when he tells an old, drunken actor, Danjuro (Kamatari Fujiwara), of a free clinic on the top of a mountain that will cure him of his diseased “bitol” organs? He’s offering these people hope in their mire of hopelessness. Is it an act of kindness or cruelty?
The big dramatic focus is on the affair between Sutekichi and Okayo. Okayo, despite her relationship with Sutekichi, doesn’t seem to actually like him very much. He’s a small-time thief who’s dishonestly having illicit relationships with two women at the same time. When he promises to change his ways, to leave the slum with her, find a real job, and leave crime behind in order to marry her, she’s suddenly taken with him, but the scene is observed by both Osugi and Rokubei who don’t take well to the idea of, on the one hand, Sutekichi leaving Osugi, and on the other, taking a hardworking and effective slave from their service. When the pair take Okayo into their house and beat her for her disloyalty, the tenement is up in arms, breaks in, and Sutekichi accidentally hits Rokubei in a way that kills him. Recriminations come, and the tenement breaks apart, beginning with Kahei mysteriously vanishing. Is he an angel or just a dishonest old man who got out before things could turn against him?
The movie ends on a note that I kind of love. The rest of the movie up to this point is a handsome, interesting story of life in the lower rungs of society, with a wide cast of people trying to get out, rest on their dreams, or simply give up depending on who they are. After the dramatic ending of the main action, with the landlord dead, the two women attached to him having fled, and Sutekichi under arrest, life just goes on. A drunken party erupts until there’s one more bit of tragedy that breaks it up, the film ending with a character looking into the camera and declaiming that it ruined their great party. I love it because firstly, the party itself seems fun and raucous. Secondly, the undercutting of the party with the tragic news is surprisingly effective at drawing the audience back from it. In addition, after so much death and destruction, why couldn’t they just find a fun way to find release? Why did it need to end?
Feeling very much like it comes from a Russian source, with depressing subject matter, long, character focused scenes, and a dirty setting, The Lower Depths seems to come from Kurosawa’s deep appreciation of Western and Russian literature. Intelligently transposing the action from late 19th century Russia to (supposedly) contemporary Japanese surroundings, it ends up feeling very much of Japan.
What’s interesting to me most is that, despite about three-quarters of the film taking place on a single set (the other quarter is mostly just outside), it never gets dull visually. Kurosawa, from his first film onward, has proven himself adept at finding aesthetically pleasing compositions, placing his actors on within frame with their surroundings in pleasing ways. That becomes harder to do when you have almost no set changes. Thinking of the relative lack of visual interest when Terry Gilliam tried something similar on The Zero Theorem to lesser effect, Kurosawa is able to effectively use beams, depth in the frame, and placement of his actors to keep the movie from feeling visually repetitive.
Acting is great all around, a result of Kurosawa taking sixty filming days and using multiple cameras at once. It’s an ensemble piece, though, so it’s hard for any one actor to really stand out other than Mifune. As Orson Welles said of him, “his movie performances would register in the back row of the Kabuki.” (I think this was praise.) The rest of the cast is very good, of course. This is really an actor’s showcase first and foremost, and there’s never a false moment from any of them. I especially liked Hidari as Kahei, particularly because I mostly just know him as the most pathetic of the peasants from Seven Samurai.
The film as a whole is handsome and interesting, though I never quite found it involving emotionally. It’s an experiment, similar to Hitchcock’s other film Lifeboat, in trying to recreate the theatrical experience in a cinema, and I think it’s a reasonable success at that.