dir: Akira Kurosawa
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Based on the play written by celebrated Russian miserablist Maxim Gorky, The Lower Depths concerns itself with the doings transpiring in a rundown hovel during the Edo period. For those of you not lucky enough to know what the word ‘Edo’ refers to, all you need to know is that it’s the time when samurai bestrode the earth with peasants grovelling at their feet, and before Godzilla and Hello Kitty conquered the island nation of Japan.
The hovel is chock full of poor, dirty people eking out meagre existences with no more intentions and dreams than getting drunk, fucking each other, or dying so their misery can end.
Despite being oh so poverty-stricken, and oh so filthy, whenever they come across any cash, they cannot hold onto it, wanting to be parted from it as quick as possible. And they enjoy themselves as much as is possible in the mean time.
Poor people, eh? They just bring it on themselves, don’t they?
It’s that lack of Judeo-Christian work ethic, family values and stick-to-itiveness that lets them down every time. The hovel, at any given moment, houses Sutekichi, a petty thief (Kurosawa stalwart Toshiro Mifune), a perpetually drunk former actor who can’t remember his most famous lines (Kamatari Fujiwara), a dishonoured samurai, a cheating gambler, there’s Osen the working girl (Akemi Negishi), a miserable tinker (Eijiro Tono) and his whimpering, dying wife (Eiko Miyoshi).
There are a bunch of other characters as well, most important being the landlord and landlady who try to make their lives even more hellish, and a wandering pilgrim everyone calls Gramps (Bokuzen Hidari) who doles out so much wisdom as if it were candy and he was standing at the fence near a kindergarten.
This is known as an ensemble piece, which means there’s thousands of roles, lots of stuff going on to hide the lack of plot, and chaos and misery seem to reign supreme.
What plot there is covers, initially, how Gramps’s words of wisdom impact on the people around him, but also an overall plot about Sutekichi’s trials and tribulations at the hands of the landlady, Osugi (Isuzu Yamada), who is one nasty piece of work. Osugi and Sutekichi were previously, to use the traditional Japanese phrase, fucking like crazed weasels, but now Sutekichi’s eye has wandered to Osugi’s sister, Okayo (Kyoko Kagawa). Jealous at being passed over for the younger, prettier model, Osugi still tries to manipulate Sutekichi into killing her toad-like husband.
And various shenanigans ensue. The meaning and the beauty within this film, dwelling underneath all the noise and dross, arises from something that is ultimately quite uplifting and depressing at the same time. The old guy spends a certain amount of time chatting with each of the denizens of these, the lowest depths of Japanese society. He has time for all of them, no matter how scummy they are. For some he brings comfort, others he brings just the gift of listening to their pathetic life stories, which brings its own comfort. To others be brings the peace that comes from having someone pretend to believe your lies.
To the dying woman he brings comfort in the form of reassurances about the after-life, and how there will no longer be any pain for her to endure there. She seeks not the rewards of a life well lived, just the cessation of her daily agonies. Her remaining days involve doing little more than lying huddled and moaning, moaning, always moaning.
Sutekichi, who the others seem to look up to as a bit of a leader and protector, is anything but. Played with the same amount of swagger and overacting that the delightful Toshiro Mifune brings to all his roles, Sutekichi is little more than a blustering, petty thug. At first he resents Gramps’s attempts to alleviate the burden of his fellow lower depth dwellers with illusions, as do many of the other cynical washouts who berate him for telling people comforting lies. But even Sutekichi warms to him. Still, he remains very confused when Gramps urges him to leave this place and go somewhere, anywhere else. He can’t fathom leaving the hell that he finds himself in. Even the suggestion is incomprehensible.
It’s not a literal hell, of course, though it might as well be. They cannot see that they are trapped, and that their miseries are of their own making. And that their days in hell will persist because they can’t even imagine a different way of living.
Now that’s down and out. That is the downward spiral taken to its absolute conclusion. And proof positive that Kurosawa hates poor people.
Okay, he doesn’t hate poor people. But the point is made that much of their misery is their own fault. The horse-faced alcoholic actor, upon hearing from Gramps of a temple where the monks would help him dry out and conquer his alcoholism, he can’t stop talking about the place. His determination to get there doesn’t stop him from drinking, but the lure of this hallowed location, and of helping out his alcohol-poisoned organs, is very powerful. The question is, can he bring himself to leave the hovel?
Gramps is a pretty amazing character. He is old, and seems to be wise, but he’s not pious or holier-than-anyone. Though he almost has a religious bearing, he speaks at length of the carousing and wenching he’s enjoyed throughout his long and decadent. So he is not naïve about life in the slightest.
That would appear to be one of the central conflicts or dynamics in the flick. Gramps offers a listening ear, and hope. The hope is mostly in the form of comforting illusions to battle harsh truths. Some of the other deadbeats desperately need their illusions, no matter how, but others resent any comfort given to anyone, or any attempt by some of the people to embrace anything that Gramps might say. Even the illusion of solace or hope is painful to some of them. It’s astounding, it really is, and it’s such a sardonic, miserable existence that these people embrace and live.
This makes it sound like a depressing film, but it’s anything but. It’s actually quite funny, and for a story that mostly transpires in the one room, it’s quite lively and engaging. None of the characters (except for Gramps) really gets enough time to have adequate characterisation, but they all stand out even if you can’t remember their times. They’re types anyway, even if they are entertaining types at that.
The hell, the limbo they are trapped is as much their product as much a product of the times, but even the inertia they are trapped within yields to only one catalyst: death. As a character says right at the end, “Just as we were having fun, he had to go and spoil everything.” Illusions only carry people so far, and in the end we see that there’s not enough hope in the world to save these characters.
It’s not Kurosawa’s best effort, but for his fans, it’s a tasty enough serving up of his usual goodness, giving us a picture into the lives of devils trapped in the hell of their own construction.
Glad I got out when I got the chance.
7 times Mifune would probably have even overacted in toothpaste commercials out of 10
“Jigoku no sata mo, kane shidai - Money buys your fate in hell” – The Lower Depths.