It has taken about a decade or so, but this examiner finally completes seeing the major works of Akira Kurosawa with ‘The Lower Depths.’ Will it live up to (most of) the director’s other works? Let’s find out!
A rundown barn-like structure in Edo, Japan is rented out to a collection of poor, despondent folks. There is Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune) a thief, who is joined by an old actor, a man with his dying wife, a man who claims to be the descendent of a famous samurai, some drunks and a prostitute.
They are all beholden to their landlord, the kindly Rokubei (Ganjiro Nakamura) and his cruel wife, Osugi (Isuzu Yamada). Osugi is having an affair with Sutekichi. Her younger sister, Okayo (Kyoko Kagawa) loves Suekichi and he begins to reciprocate these feelings. Suekichi brings an old man, Kahei (Bokuzen Hidari) into the shed as a new resident which gives us an unbiased perspective on these characters and stands in for the audience.
Given the stressful dynamic, there are numerous conflicts and things to be worked out.
Well, this was an anti-climactic way for this examiner to complete his exploration of Kurosawa’s major works. The samurai epics are far more exciting and have a certain universal appeal. Some of the director’s talkier films are dependent upon patience. They are like watching a play that is almost exclusively dialog. Add to that fact that this is an extremely set-bound production. Very little happens outside of the barn. Come to think of it, very little happens for much of the film. The first two-thirds of the story amounts to various combinations of the characters lounging around drunkenly complaining about the sorry states of their lives. Thankfully, there are a few instances of some subtle humor.
If the plot seems familiar to you Russian theater snobs, it’s because this is based on Maxim Gorky’s play of the same name. That is Kurosawa going back Russia for inspiration (remember his version of Dostoyevsky’s ‘The Idiot’?). He has a stronger grasp on the material here, but it is still a strange choice to directly follow ‘Seven Samurai’ with.
Mifune’s character is involved in a few relationships where the meatiest part of the narrative is to be found. It all comes together in a climax that has more action and excitement than the rest of the film put together. We aren’t talking about a huge fight scene or anything that extends beyond the confines of the courtyard outside of the barn, but it is still something.
We are even treated to a brief musical number halfway through the film and a bizarre song and dance number at the end that seems to come from out of nowhere. Then there is a revelation after that which makes for some ridiculously jarring tonal shifts in the third act.
Special features include: commentary, a featurette, and cast biographies. Being a Criterion Collection release, the film looks great and it has some features but this has fewer than most.
If you like the very verbose, talky side of Kurosawa’s work, then ‘The Lower Depths’ should be a fine fit for you. If you need a little action and have trouble sitting through the equivalent to a two hour play that takes place in one setting, this could be tough sledding.
Not Rated 125 minutes 1957