The Lower Depths (Akira Kurosawa, 1957)

Unexpectedly, I kinda, sorta loved this.  At the very least, it was a hell of a lot better than Renoir’s version (and I liked Renoir’s version), primarily because SO much more of Kurosawa’s was devoted to fleshing out the so-called side characters, rather than sticking to one plot.  Toshiro Mifune may have top billing (and as you’d expect, he’s in full-on lowered chin, bulging eyes, restrained yelling, retracting-his-arm-into-his-shirt-sleeve-so-he-can-scratch-his-chest Mifune mode as the thief and de-facto leader of the poor tenants of that shitty little tenement), but to my extreme surprise, especially after watching Renoir’s film, his ‘main’ story, of the thief having an affair with the malicious landlord’s even more malicious wife while pining for her kindly yet physically abused sister, is only touched upon briefly, at best.  Sure it’s the catalyst for the film’s raucous climax, as all the tenants come together for a common goal with a kind of sloppy camaraderie that reminded me of the climax from, of all films, “McCabe & Mrs. Miller” two decades later, but regardless, Kurosawa makes this film not about a beginning-to-end plot, but about a certain day or two in the life of a tenement, and those who live in it.

The entire film takes place in either the filthy shared living space or the not-much-better courtyard, and hell, you go at least the first 30 minutes before even seeing Mifune.  It’s all about character development, allowing characters like the actor in the last stages of alcoholism, the whore, the cynically apathetic man and his dying wife, the degenerate who claims to be from a line of regal samurai, the pudgy, humorless dick of the group, and others to just go about their miserable lives and make do with the only thing they can honestly say they have: their own company.  Obviously they’re all clichéd character types, made even more clichéd when you consider the behavior of some, like the dying wife’s moans of agony that made me laugh more than cry, but somehow Kurosawa makes it work.  Renoir’s film had similar characters that more or less went through the same story arc, both films being based on Maxim Gorky’s play, but the difference is that these characters in Renoir’s film were the window dressing, the supporting players, the background for the main emphasis on the story of the thief, his love, and his lover.  In Kurosawa’s film, they are the emphasis, as the first 30 minutes, at least, throw us into a day in their life.  As far as I remember, there was very little by way of exposition – just these grimy yet optimistic people talking about random shit, endearingly and playfully mocking each other’s shortcomings, and gravitating into and out of the set, much like a stage play.  Only rarely do they truly bemoan their situation, and even then with a twinge of optimism and playfulness.  After all, they’re all in the same boat, so what complaint could any one of them lodge that could just as easily go unsaid yet completely understood?  As a result of that, giving us that unusually long amount of time to soak in that set and the characters, this place feels much more lived in, much more alive, much more real than Renoir’s tenement, to the point that the men’s sudden breaking out into a full-on song and dance number, about as perfectly choreographed as that scene of the native men doing their chant in “Baraka,” feels, against all odds, like a fresh slice of life.  Even in the monstrously over-theatrical world of a Kurosawa film, a moment like this would be considered beyond the realm of reasonable possibility, but I had no reason to complain.  It was a welcome distraction from the misery of that tenement and its sickly conditions, for me and for the men doing the dance.  Whatever it was, it definitely put a smile on my face.

And it’s funny, perhaps the most clichéd of all the characters, the mysterious old man who arrives at the tenement one day and becomes the makeshift wise grandfatherly figure for everyone there, the character who arguably drives the ‘plot’ forward even more than Mifune’s thief, is a welcome breath of fresh air, a kind of greek chorus and voice of reason and stand-in for the viewer – he, like we, are arriving in this tiny place and meeting its people not knowing what to expect.  And that’s quite an accomplishment considering the actor playing this mysterious yet sagely and admirable old man (at least until the climax and denouement, when his behavior becomes both suspect and morally disappointing), Bokuzen Hidari, played the long-faced, pathetic (and wonderful) embodiment of comic relief Yohei in “Seven Samurai.”  I’d say that this old man is the so-called main character, the driving force that unites the men and women in the tenement simply by sitting there and observing the random goings-on and occasionally offering a word or two of advice or wisdom (more like straight-up logic…), and yet Bokuzen Hidari gets 13th billing according to IMDB.  Guess his wrinkly, horse-like face isn’t enough to take down the handsome, athletic, screen-commanding presence of arguably Japan’s most famous screen actor ever, so what’re you gonna do?

Kurosawa’s “The Lower Depths” goes above and beyond Renoir’s in so many ways, and not just in terms of quality.  Its downs, its feelings of physical filth and emotional despair, are stifling at times, while at the same time making full use of a surprising abundance of comic relief – highs and lows both present, but in a much more diluted way in Renoir’s film.  That surprising abundance of both anguish and humor tell me one thing – that Kurosawa is indeed trying full well to depict the tough life of the lower class, how even with an infusion of optimism it’s often an inescapable road to nowhere, but with a much more cynical and darkly humorous worldview than Renoir’s.  After considering what feels like a tacked on and frankly ridiculous overly-happy ending to Renoir’s film, you wanna know how Kurosawa isn’t taking this material too seriously, how his understanding of the plight of those in the lower depths is tinged with biting, fresh cynicism and his vaguely sarcastic combination of optimism and pessimism doesn’t feel artificial or contrived like Renoir’s?  The very last line of this film, and the way it’s delivered before a sudden and jarring cut to “The End”, says it all.



2 comments so far

  1. jesusolofchrist on

    nice picture

  2. Javid Sinha on

    Just popping in to let you know you have a brand new fan!
    Reading one post on your blog made me enamored immediately.
    Really, you are awesome!

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