The Lower Depths (1957)

Class: Staff
Author: Miles Imhoff
Score: (4.5/5)
February 14, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

To quote Bokuzen Hidari's character: “My oh my.” Certainly, it is not something we've come to expect from Akira Kurosawa. The Lower Depths is a period piece, as usual, but it is both devoid of the dramatic lives of clan samurai and the roguish existence of misplaced ronin. Instead it is a look at the seething underbelly of 19th century Edo (Tokyo), created in the model of an early 20th century Russian play (by the same name) about the plight of the proletariat. A gritty, realistic, and often bleak portrayal of the poor (wrapped in the shell of a pitch-black comedy), The Lower Depths is an often castigated film in Kurosawa's portfolio… perhaps due to the unorthodox, play-like approach to its composition. Nevertheless, it still stands out as one of Kurosawa's better classics and an interesting change-of-pace for the director.

In a rubbish heap of a tenement in the bowls of Edo, several downtrodden, hard-on-there luck cases try to irk out a meager existence with what little they can. Gamblers, thieves, prostitutes, and the like live their lives from penny to penny, from one jar of sake to the next.

One day, the landlady's sister, Okayo, brought a mysterious old man named Kahei to the tenement. “Gramps”, as he would come to be known, became the watchful observer of a twisted web of tragic romance between resident thief Sutekuchi and the sinister landlady Osugi. The master thief had been, for some time, locked in an affair with the landlord Rokubei's wife. Sutekuchi was fazing out his affection for the bitter woman, preferring her younger, far more tolerable sister. Mad with jealousy, Osugi desired to conspire with Sutekuchi to murder her husband (which would, in turn, lead to the banishment of her unfaithful lover), but he would have no part of it, seeing through her seductive deceit. Rokubei soon discovered the affair, and due to his own inability to hold his tongue, he almost became the victim of Sutekuchi's rage; if not for the helpful interloping of Gramps.

Though Okayo, at first, wouldn't offer Sutekuchi even the faintest hint of the time of day, she started to come around as time went on, but Rokubei and Osugi's temper compelled them to beat and severely injure Okayo. The inhabitants of the tenement infiltrated the landlord's home in order to save Okayo, and Sutekuchi's anger swelled to an all time high when he learned of Okayo's mistreatment. Unfortunately, in the ensuing chaos, Rokubei was killed, and Osugi placed the blame squarely on her ex-lover's shoulders. Sutekuchi fought back, claiming that Osugi had beguiled him to kill her husband, and upon hearing this, Okayo's faint love for Sutekuchi ran ice cold. She placed the blame on both of them, and it was clear that they would all soon face tribunal.

Strangely enough, the above plot is actually almost a subplot in the course of the story. The Lower Depths is really a carefully crafted web that reveals the interwoven lives of the many downtrodden inhabitants of the tenement. It is somewhat alinear in this fashion, the anticlimax being one keen example. Though the technical plot of the film has ended after what appears to be the climax, life in the slums goes on. It is in this way that the movie seems to convey dozens of themes and messages to the viewer, as the composition of the film isn't forced to follow a traditional path. The thin line of reality (a prominent feature in Kurosawa films), for example, is one message, especially emphasized when Osen rebukes the former samurai's claim to grace. The need to be mindful of consequences is a theme reflected in Yoshisaburo's tragic past, but more often shown through the interaction between Sutekuchi and Rokubei (rage one second, murder the next). There is also the need for compassion, which is a message that encompasses Gramps' whole purpose in the film. The role of women and men in the tenement also becomes a theme worth mentioning, as it is a peculiar foil to the style shown in other Kurosawa period pieces. Whereas in other Kurosawa films depicting this time period, the woman often takes the inglorious, dutiful role… it is clearly turned on its head here. It is an intriguing theme, as it shows how different gender matters at the lowest rung of society. In an interesting twist, anecdotal evidence of Otaki taking out her rage on her husband physically also presents a clear difference in how some things work in the “lower depths”. Finally, as far as themes go, there is a little message about how even in the dimmest of places, there is a glimmer of hope in optimism… and a little lightheartedness can blossom in even the roughest soil. With that in mind, one can surely find it prudent to label The Lower Depths a comedy. Often, it is the innumerable one-liners that cause the audience to giggle. There is Gramps' assessment of the former samurai's current condition: “Your fall from grace landed you flat on your a**.” There is the actor, who in his perpetual drunkenness can never seem to quite pronounce “vital organs”, and there is also his peppering of witty stage clichés in his dialogue: “Stop blocking the runway, we're making our dramatic exit”. The main character, Sutekuchi, also has some humorous moments. His shrill mocking of Tomekichi: “I'm a craftsman!” and his inability to comprehend Okayo's revulsion of his profession being two examples. And of course, there is the last line of the movie, which is ironically hilarious, despite just how grim the situation is.

It is clear in this regard that the film itself is very character based, so success in the human area is absolutely essential. I'd say, pound for pound, the acting in this film is brilliant if, for anything, its compelling realism. Not only is this true, but the character development is also keen in its detail (and in the sheer number of characters whose personality, we as the audience, come to clearly define). Toshiro Mifune is given the untraditional (for him, at least) role of a common thief. Though a move unfairly castigated because of the actor's indelible dignity, he brings an anti-hero air of charm to his performance… and a break-lose style that wouldn't again be seen in its entirety until Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962). Really, though, this isn't entirely his story. One could easily make a claim that it's everyone's tale, but The Lower Depths is the type of movie that makes the audience a fly-on-the-wall to the inner workings of the social lower class. In this regard, it is Haruo Tanaka who really steals the show, as the audience can more thoroughly relate him as the outside observer. Kahei (“Gramps”) is mysterious, to say the least. His past is a virtual mystery, although it is clear that his former life wasn't an entirely easy one, especially when he admits that he was a “stone beside a stream”, eroded and made proverbially “smooth”. He is the kindest, most likeable character in the course of the story. His character eases the ailing Asa into passing, shines a ray of hope on the actor's future, offers a humble ear to Osen's stories, and lifts the overall mood of the dilapidated complex. Tanaka's gentle expressions, easy tones, and graceful movements bring to his role a satisfying demeanor… and help the audience to realize he's more than just someone who's just passing on through.

Koji Mitsui, who plays Yoshisaburo, brings a certain comic relief to his character. His line delivery is excellent in this regard, especially his reaction to the death at the end of the movie: “It was such a great party. Then he had to go and ruin it. Bastard!” Akemi Negishi, who is given the role of the emotionally-challenged prostitute Osen, has a great underlying charm to her character… if only for her tearful resilience and daydreamy nature. Kamatari Fujiwara, the actor, is the epitome of the comic relief, complaining often about how alcohol has poisoned his “bitol” organs. However, as time progresses, it is clear that he is among the most tragic of the cast. His inability to even remember his favorite lines from his days as an actor, and Fujiwara's ability to reflect the torment and frustration of this inability through his expressions, are truly heartbreaking. The admirable dignity he reveals when he recites his lines is also the audience's deepest gaze into his past, and shows the extent of his descent into the “lower depths”. Minoru Chiaki's character, like the actor, has fallen from a level of pride as well. This character claims to have once been a samurai in the service of the clan. In the tenement, he is a comically antagonistic presence; although, it is his interaction with Negishi's character that becomes center stage, especially when she turns the tables on him through the irony of questioning his past. Of the prominent protagonists, Eijiro Tono and Eiko Miyoshi remain. Tono's character, the cruel self-tormented “craftsman” Tomekichi, is one that invokes revulsion in the audience at first (due to the treatment of his wife). As the film progresses his spirit softens, and although it appears as though his subplot is far from center-stage, his decision to finally give in, accept, and almost embrace what little pleasure he can find in his down-in-the-dumps life presents another interesting theme. Miyoshi's performance as his dying wife is one that is truly unnerving, due to the astonishing realism in her voice and actions. It is her interaction with other characters that almost always works to pronounce their personality traits. Her interaction with “Gramps” comes into play to quickly define the fine quality of his character, and her interaction with Tomekichi shows just how despicable her husband is in the beginning of the film. As for the villains, Isuzu Yamada's character is the most prominent, and the most domineering in the film. The actress gives such a cold, grim performance that it accentuates the sheer evil of the landlady Osugi. Her seductive charms and sinister nature are very well acted, and Yamada often steals the show from Mifune. Finally, there is Ganjiro Nakamura. He brings to his role a very dark, heavy, almost “reptilian” presence that gives his character (whose dialogue confirms this twisted demeanor) an air of severe loathing. As time goes on, his facial expressions almost become comical, especially as it becomes clear that his character is not the worst, but instead it is instead Rokubei's wife who is the true antagonist in the plot.

There are other, less prominent actors throughout the film, and unfortunately, it is a little jarring to see their development only start to take form near the end of the movie. Haruo Tanaka's character, despite how often he's used in the film, is actually developed rather poorly. This is perhaps the one great flaw in the human element of the film. Regardless, of the remaining actors, there is still one final person who deserves mention. Yu Fujiki's character is certainly the most flamboyant and fun of the less prominent roles in the film. Of course, I'm biased… I've been a King Kong vs. Godzilla (1962) fan for a very long time, and his antics in that movie have stuck with me very well. In this film, Fujiki's wacky actions greatly set him apart among the lesser roles.

While the human element may be the strongest part of the film; the visuals, while certainly far from the most prominent aspect of the film, are still worthy of mention. The sets are pretty minimalist in The Lower Depths, but even still, the cinematography is fairly impressive here. What really shocked me was just how long some of the takes were (I found myself thinking that I'd never be able to stay serious forthat long). Of course, this movie is meant to reflect theatre, so it isn't too unexpected. The zooms and pans are fairly flawless too, especially taking into account the relatively smooth 360-degree effect at the start of the film. Concerning more physical aspects of movie, the lighting is excellently executed, considering what the main set was supposed to reflect (a dank, dark tenement). The outside shots are also well done, although one could complain that in black-and-white, the background during Osen's recitation looked a little strange and distracting, especially considering the position of the actors. Other than that, there really isn't too much on which to comment. The set treatment isn't very lavish, but again, considering this film is almost basically theatre on film, it isn't all that surprising.

When one sees Masaru Sato in the billing for music, one can often expect a flamboyant, almost zany track to accompany the film. However, with The Lower Depths, this is far from the case. There are really only two tracks in the entire film. The first is the music that plays during the opening scene, during the 360-degree pan of the slums. To put it simply, these are single notes of heavy percussion (bells) played at sparse intervals, certainly not much of anything. The second form of music in the film is the “fool music”. Basically a vulgar jab at the bleakness of a money-centric existence, what really makes it special is just how funny it sounds (especially the parts Koji Mitsui sings). In a way, the song adds to the realism, as it isn't anything lavish or complex (nor is it complimented with anything but a simple drum), so it isn't at all jarring when the actors break out into song. However, a little more music would have been nice, especially considering Sato's excellent record.

Enigmatically humorous, bleak, and thematic simultaneously, The Lower Depths is one of Kurosawa's less-prominent films, one that often places its fans in a defensive stance. In contrast to many, I would claim that it is simply phenomenal, and that once the audience gets around the unorthodox set up, they can find a true gem in there. Packed with character and charm, The Lower Depths is one of Kurosawa's greats, and easily warrants multiple viewings.