Akira Kurosawa turned two classic European stage plays into Japanese films in 1957. But while the first of these adaptations, Throne of Blood, is exciting, action-packed, and expressionistic, the second, The Lower Depths, is dialog-heavy and relentlessly realistic. I was also going to call it low-key, but I realized that wasn’t quite accurate. There’s a lot of yelling in this movie.
I watched The Lower Depths Wednesday night, as part of my ongoing project of watching all available Kurosawa films in chronological order. I had seen it twice before, both times theatrically. The last time was in 1980, so I didn’t really remember it.
Based on the play by Maxim Gorky (which I have neither read nor seen), this picture feels more more stage-bound than Throne of Blood. (Of course, Macbeth is a very cinematic play.) It takes place entirely on the grounds of a horrible, poverty-ridden flophouse, at some point in Japan’s feudal past. Everyone, men and women, sleep in the same filthy room, with worn and patched curtains over their bunks providing the only privacy. An old woman is dying, painfully, on the floor as her tinker husband desperately buries himself in his work. The landlord, landlady, and the landlady’s sister live in an adjacent house that, while simple, looks like paradise to their tenants.
If all this sounds like a very depressing film, it is, but not entirely. Once again with Kurosawa, human kindness makes the unbearable bearable. The characters bicker and fight, but they also help each other, share what little they have, and take care of the sick. There are moments when the characters cheer themselves up with jokes and songs. A dark, sardonic humor permeates the film.
At a time when Kurosawa’s films were looking more and more like Toshiro Mifune star vehicles, The Lower Depths plays an ensemble piece. Mifune has a juicy role as a thief afforded the luxury of a room of his own (it’s never explained if this is because he can pay more than the honest paupers, or because the landlady is sweet on him), and he gets top billing, but the movie doesn’t really belong to him.
I said in an earlier post that Takashi Shimura appeared in every Japanese Kurosawa film made before the actor’s 1982 death . I was wrong. He’s not in The Lower Depths. Why? I don’t know. Starting with Throne of Blood, Kurosawa stopped using Shimura for anything but bit parts (I don’t know the reason for that, either), and there are no bit parts in The Lower Depths.
Actually, there is a part that would have fit Shimura quite well—an old pilgrim who embodies the Kurosawa spirit of kindness and charity. But Kurosawa cast Bokuzen Hidari—the comic, timid peasant from Seven Samurai—in the role. He gives a marvelous performance, so I can’t object.
Next up: The Hidden Fortress.