To celebrate the upcoming release of my book, Akira Kurosawa: A Viewer’s Guide, due out Dec. 15 from Rowman & Littlefield — preorder here! — I’ll be doing capsule reviews all month covering every single Kurosawa film and posting (very) brief excerpts. These will be short impressions and recommendations, nothing more. For a full, detailed analysis of each, grab the book!
The Lower Depths (1957)
Kurosawa’s interest in exploring the plight of the underclasses did not end when his exploration of postwar Japan ended, nor did his interest in western literature ever wane. The Lower Depths, an adaption of the stage play by Maxim Gorky, combines those ideas into one compact film — and it’s a great one.
The Lower Depths looks at the lives of an eclectic group of destitute peasants living in a ramshackle tenement (something he’d do again in 1970 with Dodes’ka-den), peering into their loves, lives, hungers, and pains. The narrative is simple and slight, but it doesn’t need to be any more complex than it is, because this isn’t a movie concerned with story as much as it’s concerned with people.
Largely lacking in action, its strength comes in the deft way in which Kurosawa paints us a picture of the way these people live. The always reliable Toshiro Mifune gets top billing, but this is truly an ensemble piece, with all the characters getting a chance to take center stage for at least a scene or two. Suicide. Betrayal. Hopelessness. Despair. It’s not a happy-go-lucky movie by any means.
Despite its bleak subject matter, the film has warmth. It even boasts a sense of humor. From the book:
There are moments when you can imagine the entire film being restructured as a black comedy. For there to be so many laughs in a work as starkly downbeat as this is unusual, though welcome. The humor springs from the characters themselves, these sad sacks fumbling their way through life. Each dark scene is typically bookended with something lighter.
The Lower Depths not only deserves to be discussed alongside his great works, it’s also a worthwhile watch even for casual fans. If you enjoy well-realized human drama, don’t hesitate to see this.
Check out my upcoming book for a full analysis exploring this film’s ideas, themes, good points, and bad
You can get the movie in excellent edition by the Criterion Collection.