Akira Kurosawa - The Lower Depths (1957) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies
19Oct/120

Akira Kurosawa – The Lower Depths (1957)

I'm having a tough time deciding how I feel about The Lower Depths — I like it more as time progresses, but I feel as if I like it in theory more than practice. The needle may swing the other way if I watched it again. There are wonderful sustained sequences here where various characters come in and out of the primary (and almost only) setting—a dilapidated flophouse—and simply interact with each other. We get to know them and their backstories (sometimes) through conversations, which also enable us to pretty quickly see that their low social status has created a common bond in the form of booze and gambling.

I love the way Akira Kurosawa films The Lower Depths in long stretches where nothing really happens but we get a sense of the rhythm and tone of these people's lives. The best sequences involve one visitor's presence spawning reactions from the others that begin to define their personalities. A visit from the tenants' ruthless landlord reveals details about one character's relationship with his wife; the death of one woman sends ripples through the group in distinct ways — we are essentially watching a group of individuals in a terrarium, and because the individuals and the actors who play them are so often entertaining, the movie builds a kind of rolling momentum through it's various sequences.

My favorite character is himself a kind of element introduced to test and provoke the group: a wanderer named Kahei played by Bokuzen Hidari, who everyone will remember from The Seven Samurai. As played by Hidari and his magnificent face, Kahei looks like a sad clown who can barely contain that he's secretly bursting with happiness inside. He brings a much needed dose of optimism to the flophouse, patiently providing the residents with more positive alternatives to their current and universally pitiful states. The way this calm, kind, and knowing facade is broken suddenly in his exit toward the end of the movie is very funny, and made all the funnier when it's pointed out by one character that his ungrounded hopefulness did nothing but introduce more misery into their lives.Recalling all of these elements, there is a lot to this movie that I really liked (cue the scenes of the residents drunkenly singing and what I can only describe as an early Japanese form of beatboxing). But toward the end, Kurosawa layers on plot elements too thick, accompanied by a few slow scenes that drag the movie on longer than it needs. In the final act, what were previously bare threads suggesting a story regarding a thief played by (of course) Toshiro Mifune and his relationship with both the landlord's wife and her sister are woven together fairly suddenly. This results in a scene that alternates between hilarious and utterly chaotic energy while the tenants storm the landlord's small house and meandering, silly dialogue that jumps from soap-opera relationship talk to murder accusations to a character's sudden and—given the situation, appropriate—madness. While some of the events of the third act seemed to me to be forcing a story where none was needed (and here I think Kurosawa could have played more loosely with the source material, a play the film was based on), the culmination of utter lunacy and subsequent helplessness seems exactly where these characters are headed the whole film.

In reconsidering it here, I think my issues with The Lower Depths are minor. The acting is wonderful—Kamatari Fujiwara is brilliant as a washed up actor who is all too conscious of the effect his rampant alcoholism has had on his dreams, and he manages to make the character both ridiculously funny and surprisingly sad—and it strikes a near-perfect rhythm most of the time. I had trouble connecting with it a bit early on, and some of the pacing at the end is off, but this is a pretty unique effort from Kurosawa. I also question its effectiveness at making any coherent statement about the class disparity its characters suffer from aside from the very basic “it's not fair,” but I don't know if it really wants to say more than that. We'll leave that for round 2.I can't say with any real certainty whether my response will sway you one way or another, but know it comes from my heart.

All this week I have been dreading the moment I had to write about The Lower Depths.  It's not a bad movie and there is at least some point to the manic giggling this time, but it is possibly the most uneventful of Kurosawa's career.  The movie exists as a non-entity to me, with scenes that function better as individual vignettes but feel beholden to some overarching narrative that isn't necessary.  But while those individual moments play better they still drag on and on to the vanishing point of interest.

Take, for example, the drunks.  The first time I saw them dancing around and clamoring to their own erratic beat it was amusing.  Then they continue singing, beating, clapping and whistling, for minutes.  The net result isn't like in a Bela Tarr film where there is so much texture to the shot that I can pick up on different details during the endless waltz.  Instead, the set is no different than what we have seen before since it seems that they're all trapped in the same building except the decrepit sheet is placed over the north window instead of the south one.

Since the same idea of being trapped in squalor is repeated the same way throughout the whole film I couldn't find much to interest me this second go-around.  I remember watching this film years ago and struggling to pay attention so I was hoping that with a deeper appreciation and recent intake of his films that I might pick up on something worth commenting on.  Sadly, I have almost nothing.  The film faded from my memory quickly the first time I watched it and as each of the scenes played out a second time they almost as quickly rescinded into a pit in my brain.

 

Now, days later, the only reason I can pick out some of those details is because of how bored I was experiencing the film again and because you just wrote to me about it.  Do I remember Mifune and Hidari?  Sure, but that's just because they were both playing subdued versions of their characters from Seven Samurai.  I clearly remember the drunks, but that's just because their endless jaunting bored me.  I'll remember the way the film is shot if I consciously think about it, because I did enjoy the way the shanty's were angled in such a way that it looked like they were trying to keep each other apart, yet still forming a canopy of debris in the sky.

The only thing that really intrigued me were bits of dialogue that pointed toward their predicament and how they dealt with that.  I enjoyed that each character harbored extreme delusions about themselves, from the other Seven Samurai callback of pretending to be a great samurai, or once the lord of a great realm, the beautiful charmer of the valley - anything to be anyone but themselves.  Given the context of their environment this makes sense, and the dialogue shows them hypocritically poking holes through each other ("All women are liars, they lie even to themselves") and ocassionally recognizing their standing ("Nobody here’s got time to pity themselves,") but nothing really coalesces.

Since I haven't seen Jean Renoir's original take on the film, or read the play, I can't say if this is another case of Kurosawa respecting something so much that he can't change much out of whatever duty he feels toward the material.  A quick glance of the plot's of all three show great similarity and a story that could be adapted to any point in time, but Kurosawa's doesn't feel very unique.  Does that help you make up your mind at all?“Scenes that function better as individual vignettes but feel beholden to some overarching narrative that isn't necessary” — that perfectly describes my feeling while watching the film. There was amusement followed by puzzlement as I tried to predict where Kurosawa was going, only to have some of that amusement repeated. The weird thing for me is still how I'm actually more fond of it thinking back on it than I thought I was at the time. Much of the dead space between those vignettes has faded from memory, so my experience of the whole movie is now a kind of impressionistic amalgamation of effective moments, plus a clear recollection of the excellent scene where the actor barges back into the shanty and gleefully recites the monologue he couldn't remember moments before.

The unnecessary overarching narrative you mention really is the biggest problem for me here. I'd rather Kurosawa have gone all the way with the format and allowed those vignettes and moments of self-realization stand on their own — he does a good enough job presenting these characters that I think he could have pulled any traces of a narrative structure out from under the movie and just let it observe. For me, it's not that I even want the interactions within the shanty to contribute to some larger whole—but if they in fact aren't going to add up in such a way, then don't structure the film with the pretense of a narrative. Let the moments work as moments that contribute to an overall impression of these characters, who are stuck in a sort of earthly Purgatory from which they'll never escape. This would also have brought to the foreground the idea we've both taken the most interest in: their unreasonable views of themselves and their situations in life.

It's curious that Kurosawa approaches dealing with the idea of class and the disparity between the tenants and the landlord's family, but never really does anything other than make note of it. The opening scene was encouraging, with its shot of debris falling from one roof to the lower rooftop of the flophouse—a trademark use of Kurosawa subtlety. But then we get to the sequence in which the tenants storm through the landlord's house, overwhelming him and his wife in a frantic, drunken stampede, which seems designed to offer some sort of catharsis for a problem that's never really illustrated.Furthermore, the motivations of all the tenants in this scene save for Mifune's character are murky at best. They seem to simply jump into riot mode upon realizing that one of their own has a vested interest in stopping the landlord and his wife from abusing her sister, not concerned with the sister so much as an opportunity to rage on this faintly defined upper class. This is fitting considering that the film essentially makes the argument that the characters' troubles are primarily their own—sure, there is a vague level of oppression demonstrated, but for the most part this is a group of people portrayed largely as giving in to easy vices and delusion. For a director so directly concerned with social issues in his post-war films, there is a lot of fertile territory here that goes unexplored.

I think all of this is a case of my chronic need to take movies that aren't working and reconfigure them within my own mind into a version I would have liked more. That's also been a running current for me throughout this project—take a movie that exhibits strong characteristics but doesn't put them to as sturdy a use as we know Kurosawa is capable of, and analyze the gap between these elements with merit and the failed final product. That said, I'll remember moments and scenes from The Lower Depths more than I will from some of the other projects, so that's something.What you mention about your horrible reworking disease is funny considering the films we have lined up for Kurosawa.  As much as The Lower Depths has almost completely faded from my mind yet again, Kurosawa ended up taking a lot of the same basic platforms and launched into a completely different film with his first color film Dodesukaden.  I'll leave the similarities for you to discover but the difference in execution is striking.

Here?  I'm pretty much tapped out.  The Lower Depths suffers from the same issue The Quiet Duel does, an overabundance of earnest with not enough focus to achieve lift-off.  Maybe a dash of Shimura would have made all the melodrama tie together a little better.  But as it stands, it's a disappointment.Next week: we'll dissect The Hidden Fortress while skirting around the bearded elephant in the room.

Posted by Andrew

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