The Lower Depths (1957)
The Lower Depths is an adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s naturalistic play about a particularly antagonistic tenement teeming with the outcasts of society. Alcoholics, gamblers, prostitutes, and other people chewed up and spit out by city life converge and conflict in this filthy hovel to either drink, fight or lay down and await death (sometimes all three!). Incredibly sad stories of lost fortunes and lost loves are passed between the peasants like small talk, responded to with only unimpressed guffaws or insults.
For Gorky, The Lower Depths focuses on Russian peasants at the turn of the 20th century — but Kurosawa has transplanted the story earlier into the chaotic Edo period of Japan’s history. The chaos snugly fits Gorky’s story, which is less of a linear plot and more of an intricate web of bitter rivalries, jealousies, poorly thought-out plans, and their subsequent miserable failures.
Taking the forefront of The Lower Depths‘ dramatic action is a four-way conflict between the most (relatively) affluent characters. The crotchety landlord Rokubei struggles to keep his property from his greedy and hostile wife, Osugi. Osugi has taken a boisterous young thief Sutekichi (Toshirō Mifune) as a paramour and would-be assassin, although she slowly notices Sutekichi’s affections drift towards her younger and considerably less evil sister, Okayo. Meanwhile, Okayo is disinterested with the brash Sutekichi’s increasingly bold advances.
With the stage set, all four characters are primed to explode until a wise, but enigmatic soul named Kahei wanders into the tenement and starts dispensing platitudes. “Once you set your mind to it, you can do anything,” Kahei repeats ad nauseam like some 17th-century guidance counselor.
The new wisdom appears to positively affect the slum at first, inspiring a mad drunk to seek help and a heartbroken prostitute to regain her self esteem. However, once the tenement reaches some level of amity, Kahei’s ominous past threatens to undo the fruits of his sage compassion.
At this point, the fragile peace of the tenement reaches its breaking point, and the focus of The Lower Depths shifts to an ever-relevant question: in a society defined by birthright and self-interest, can we change our lot in life through wisdom and perseverance, or are we simply deluding ourselves?
Originally produced by the staunch naturalist Konstantin Stanislavski, the impressionistic, abstract Kurosawa is seen very little here. Rather, The Lower Depths follows a strict, realist style that rarely wanders out of the tenement. Special effects are very minimalistic, keying into the poverty and forced conservatism of The Lower Depths‘ cast of characters.
The most dramatic bits of production come from loud, blustery rain storms that serve as an exclamation point to the trapped nature of Rokubei’s tenants. Cinematography favors a lot of shots low to the ground, with most characters shown sitting or lying down through their dialogues. There is a constant feeling of oppression throughout the entire film, despite the fact that legitimate authority figures only enter into the story for a fleeting moment — almost exclusively to further the narrative between the powerless.
The most action we see out of Lower Depths‘ supporting cast is when they drink and gamble together. These scenes are given a sacred, yet still tongue-in-cheek tone, usually incorporating a steady beating drum and solemn chants. “Money buys your fate in hell,” is the guiding chorus for the tenants’ chants, suggesting that within The Lower Depths, profanity has become sacrosanct. With no other escape from a crushing reality, the drinking of sake and cheating at cards come together for the residents as a sort of religious ritual.
By the end of the film, Kahei’s seed of optimism has been planted of the tenants of The Lower Depths, but not without a healthy compliment of tragedy and loss. A rousing celebration that finally appears to bring all of the residents together in a brief moment of harmony is crushed when news comes that the thought-rehabilitated drunk has hung himself.
Kahei’s upbeat message seems to be finally squashed underneath the weight of a cruel, unforgiving world. The party ends with one of the peasants cursing the drunk’s name for ruining the party. However, as the George Bernard Shaw quote goes and as the bleak, but never hopeless tone of the film confirms: “Life does not cease to be funny when people die any more than it ceases to be serious when people laugh.” — AJ Tigner