The Lower Depths (1957)
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

The Lower Depths
Starring Toshiro Mifune (Sutekichi), Isuzu Yamada (Osugi), Kyoko Kagawa (Okayo), Ganjiro Nakamura (Rokubei), Kamatari Fujiwara (The actor), Minoru Chiaki (The ronin), Akemi Negishi (Osen), Eijiro Tono (The tinker), Bokuzen Hidari (The pilgrim), Haruo Tanaka (Tatsu), Atsushi Watanabe
Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni
Cinematography by Kazuo Yamasaki
Music by Masaru Sato

Toho Company, 137 minutes
B&W, 1.37:1 Academy ratio
English-subtitled DVD: Criterion

Along with The Men Who Tread on the Tiger's Tail, The Lower Depths is one of the lesser-known entries in Kurosawa's body of jidai-geki films rarely mentioned alongside Seven Samurai, Yojimbo and the rest of the classics. A big reason for the exclusion is that The Lower Depths isn't a samurai chambara, so it has to face the prejudice of therefore being "less interesting."

It's actually part of Kurosawa's tradition of adapting Western literary works into a Japanese context, in this case an adaptation of a play by Maxim Gorky. Kurosawa has translocated this story of peasants living in squalor from 19th century Russia to 19th century Japan, while retaining much of the original dialogue and story points of the source material. Set in the late Edo period, The Lower Depths clearly qualifies as jidai-geki.

There is also a ronin in the story, or at least he claims to have been a samurai once, who is part of the ensemble of stock characters who live together in a dilapidated tenement house. The others include a gambler, an old kabuki actor, a tinker and his wife, a prostitute and a thief. These poor souls spend their days in misery and despair, bickering amongst themselves and endlessly terrorized by their cruel landlord and landlady.

Sutekichi the thief (Toshiro Mifune), the most dominant personality among the residents, is involved in a dysfunctional love triangle with the landlady, whose only soft spot is her adulation of Sutekichi. But the thief has no regard for her, and instead he bears an unrequited love for her younger sister Okayo. The gambler is a hard-bitten cynic, the actor is an alcoholic in declining health, and the ronin is derisively addressed as "his lordship" by the others who doubt his claims of a glamorous past career. The tinker is the one who most refuses to accept his poverty, insisting that through hard work he can make enough money to get back on his feet again. His focus on work and hope is undeterred even by the presence of his dying wife, whom he barely seems to notice. The scrape-scrape-scrape of the tinker cleaning an old pot, in concert with his wife's persistent death-rattle coughs, punctuates the soundtrack of the movie's first act, completing the atmosphere of depression and gloom.

And yet, Kurosawa said that his intention was to present this story as a comedy, or tragicomedy. The Gorky play was considered a solemn social commentary, and Kurosawa engendered some controversy by daring to put a lighter spin on it. The figure who cuts through the oppressive gloom of the tenement house is a traveling Buddhist pilgrim who comes along for a stay on his presumed religious journey.

This character is played by comic actor Bokuzen Hidari, a familiar face in jidai-geki films best remembered for his role as the miserable, moaning peasant Yohei in Seven Samurai. In The Lower Depths, Hidari gets to play against type as the most positive and cheerful character in the movie. As the newcomer to the tenement, he serves as the audience's surrogate in learning about all the other residents and their relationships. The pilgrim brings an incongruous sunny viewpoint to their misery, always looking on the bright side of life. With everyone else dressed in grungy dark clothing, his white kimono makes him a saintly presence. Amid the ensemble cast, the pilgrim emerges as the dominant character, outshining even the charismatic Mifune. It's somehow satisfying to see this movie about hopeless wretches being anchored by Kurosawa's foremost "hopeless wretch" character actor in a different guise.

The Jidai-Geki Knights