The Lower Depths

  • Akira Kurosawa
  • Japan  /  1957
  • Japanese
  • 137 min
October 28, 2010 by Matthew Mesaros

[pullquote align=”left” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Five pennies won’t even get you across the River Styx.[/pullquote]

The screen is split in the middle horizontally, jagged fences stand out against an over-exposed, blown-out sky, the title The Lower Depths appears on the screen as a deep bell sounds and reverberates; Kurosawa’s camera pans 360-degrees, consistently observing this juxtaposition of sky and earth, where angular trees reach out like decrepit hands, trying to escape or grasp at something higher, something better. When the camera completes its revolution two men appear at the top, proclaim that below is just a trash-heap and dump waste down into the dilapidated tenement dwelling where the entirety of the film will take place in Edo period (19th Century) Japan, the camera never directing its gaze on anything outside this hellishly earthy setting. It’s an audacious and ominous opening, calling to mind Kurosawa’s penchant for opening his films with such abstract, yet pregnant symbolic images, like the “black morass” of Drunken Angel.

The film was made in 1957, near the end of Kurosawa’s incredible run of 1950s masterpieces, and along with films like The Idiot and I Live in Fear, it’s one of the films from that extraordinary decade that most often gets overshadowed by the others. Perhaps such ignorance is inevitable, as even excellent films can seem banal and average when compared to a handful of the greatest films ever made, yet with that in mind, I must say that The Lower Depths is, indeed, an excellent film, providing many insights into Kurosawa’s aesthetics and thematic concerns throughout his career. It was adapted from Maxim Gorky’s famous play (a play that Renoir had also adapted nearly 20 years earlier as well), and it continues Kurosawa’s fascination with Russian literature, as well as with traditional theatrics in the realm of cinema.

The plot is hard to summarize because of the large cast of characters, as well as the fact that the film is based on the intricately woven sub-plots (rather than any larger, overarching main plot) of their lives and relationships. Rokubei (Ganjiro Nakamura) and his wife, Osugi (Isuzu Yamada), are renting a rundown tenement to a ragtag group of impoverished people, including a young, robust thief named Sutekichi (Toshirō Mifune), who is in love with Osugi’s sister, Okayo (Kyôko Kagawa), even though he and Osugi used to be a couple. The tenement also houses “The Gambler” (Koji Mitsui); “The Actor” (Kamatari Fujiwara); Osen, the prostitute (Akemi Negishi); “The Ex-Samurai” (Minoru Chiaki); Tomekichi, the tinker (Eijiro Tono); Asa, his sickly wife who’s near death (Eiko Miyoshi); as well as an old pilgrim who has just arrived named Kahei (Bokuzen Hidari).

Anyone extremely familiar with Kurosawa will recognize most of these names, as The Lower Depths is definitely a film made up of Kurosawa regulars both in front of and behind the camera, with Kyôko Kagawa being one of the few newcomers. Many might remember Isuzu Yamada more vividly as the Lady Macbeth analog in Throne of Blood, and she reprises an almost equally bitter (though more down-to-earth) character here. Kamatari Fujiwara is, especially, a familiar face and an actor that Kurosawa truly loved as he cast him in a variety of different roles, especially prizing his tremendous versatility. This may comprise his best performance, ironically playing an actor who can’t remember his lines, as Fujiwara himself was notorious for forgetting his lines which allowed for his unique, humorous delivery.

Of course there’s also Mifune, who’s his usual, vigorous self. Kurosawa fans would surely disagree over his best performance, and while I might not agree with Donald Richie that this is his best, it’s surely high on the list. Mifune was never a naturalistic or subtle actor, but he often had the ability to embody characters through his sheer physical presence and kinetic energy. He was often at his best when given complex, ambiguous characters to portray, likely because that energy could disperse into conflicting aspects that kept it from overwhelming the audience by focusing everything on one emotional point. Here, he’s more restrained, with that electricity bottled up, always almost ready to burst. He stalks around the screen like a caged tiger, with the audience being quite aware that he could erupt at any moment.

That restraint is likely achieved by the fact that this may be Kurosawa’s most potent ensemble film. While he certainly made other films with large casts that were more concerned with character dynamics than primary protagonists, I don’t believe any of them quite have the breadth of this one. It’s not just that there’s no primary protagonist or hero here, there’s no character to identify with at all. What we’re left with is a hodgepodge portrait of humanity, full of “characters”, but characters are equally defined by their interactions with others. With all of Kurosawa’s focus centered on one location (and, indeed, almost one set as the majority of the film takes place inside one room in the tenement) the characters are the pores that the film breathes through, at once bringing us in close and intimate, as well as allowing us a detached distance from which to observe them.

That paradox of intimacy and distance can be observed through all aspects of the film. While Kurosawa loved film he was also fascinated by theater and, especially, traditional Japanese theater. He often spoke of wanting to direct for the theater, and adapting so many plays for cinema could be seen as a kind of compromise. This is perhaps Kurosawa’s most traditionally theatrical film, yet it’s no less cinematic than any other he made. It’s certainly theatrical in the centrality of its set and in its balancing of multiple planes of narrative action, which is narrated and led by who is speaking, acting or interacting at a given moment. The film equally plays out in incredibly long scenes that all take place in one of two locations, inside or on the immediate outside of the tenement.

Kurosawa accommodates this theatricality by imposing less editorial narration on the film than was typical of his films from this same period. There are more static shots and frames, more observational, distanced gazes which only direct our eyes where to look, but not what to see, feel or think. It’s this aspect that likely made the film such a critical and commercial flop, as it’s always a harder sell to ask audiences to see and think for themselves, rather than simply telling them what to feel. It’s hard not to make the comparison between The Lower Depths and Kurosawa’s first color film, Dodes’ka-den, which was also focused on a group of impoverished people living in a rubbish heap that used more static shots, long-takes, distanced perspectives and less editorial narration. Yet the two films are also an interesting study in contrasts, with the latter being more vivid, more fantastical and imaginative, while the former is grittier, more cynical, more darkly humorous.

The Lower Depths also shares a major theme of Dodes’ka-den, as well as many Kurosawa films, and that’s the nature of reality vs. dreams, illusions and fantasies. The reality of the film itself can be seen as what we (and the characters) experience in the immediate now, but it’s equally the immovable force that gives birth to fantasies about better things, whether they’re in the past or the imagined future. On that theme, The Gambler and The Pilgrim certainly present opposing viewpoints, with The Gambler being the hard-edged cynic that can’t tolerate the fabrications of the other characters, like Osen’s dream of a great love she once knew (but never really did), or The Ex-Samurai’s lie that he was a samurai, though he never was. The Pilgrim, instead, chooses to indulge the characters’ fantasies, realizing that, sometimes, they are precisely what people need to survive at all.

Kurosawa seems to remain ambiguous on the view he endorses. While one can read elements of hope within the film, it’s also possible to read a tone of cynical nihilism. Indeed, because of the dynamics of the cast and the completely differing viewpoints, motivations, desires, actions and relationships it’s almost impossible to weave them into any kind of coherent whole in terms of themes, tone or anything for that matter. Ostensibly, a viewer might think the film is lacking in focus, yet there’s never an instance in the film where I feel Kurosawa had anything less than complete, imperial control. Even the production design of Yoshiro Muraki seems precisely and symbolically designed, within sharp vertical and horizontal lines, which can effortlessly switch (depending on the angle) to diagonals that add a palpable level of architectural aesthetic symbolism.

Much of this can be seen at work in the riveting finale of the second act where the entire cast gather as emotions and violence erupts in a fury of cause-and-effect events. It all begins with the visual structural anchor of a leaning support bar that separates the characters on multiple planes, and one that can transform as Kurosawa conducts the events around it. It’s a technically marvelous piece of cinematic storytelling, one that synthesizes all of Kurosawa’s strengths, including his feel for character, narrative dynamics, imagery and especially editing. But it’s also a microcosm of the entire film in that it’s easier to admire than to love. Kurosawa was always a humanist, but I can’t help but feel The Lower Depths lacks a certain humanity to it; it’s a bit too theatrical, a bit too distanced, a bit too performed and constructed to capture the rawness that Gorky was known for, but even if it’s not a crowd-pleaser, it’s certainly a fine piece of cinematic art, effortlessly composed by a director who in this period could seemingly do no wrong.

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