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7 stars

Lower Depths, The (Donzoko)

The Lower Depths

The lowest depths are not to be found in Fitzroy

dir: Akira Kurosawa

1957

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).

Rating:

47 Ronin, The

47 Ronin

This poster is not from the 1962 version of 47 Ronin.
So you may ask yourself, why is it here, then?
And the answer is

dir: Hiroshi Inagaki

1962

Now here’s a blast from the past. For reasons I’m not going to bother to explain, I’ve taken it upon myself to review an ancient Japanese samurai film for my amusement and to a chorus of yawns from the rest of the world. I do love Japanese films, that’s true, but I’m not sure if that’s adequate justification for writing about a film that is over forty years old.

Surely it matters not. Clearly the makers of this flick, The 47 Ronin, didn’t think that the Seven Samurai in Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece were enough. Clearly they thought there needed to be plenty more samurai to make a really good flick. After all, just like with sex, cooking or explosives, if something doesn’t work, just add more ingredients.

Actually, that’s got nothing to do with it. The 47 Samurai is one of the fundamental Japanese cultural tales regarding its history and feudal system of vassalage, and the complex and rigid societal / class system known as bushido, which translates to ‘way of the samurai’. Fascinated as I am with Japanese history and culture, this well-made but a bit tiresome epic film is a perfect example of everything that was most insane about this crazy country. And also, most importantly, it says something about why everyone seems to be dead at the end of so many Japanese films.

Lord Asano (Yuzo Kayama) is a young and prideful man. His stance against bribery and corruption brings him into conflict with the greedy and lustful Lord Kira (Chusha Ichikawa), who provokes Asano until he cants stands no more, in the words of Popeye. Asano lashes out at Kira, drawing a sword in a place where it is forbidden (the Shogun’s building), and lightly wounds him. I felt like screaming “Finish Him!” at the screen.

Due to Kira’s superior rank, and Asano’s drawing of a weapon, the samurai code clearly dictates what must happen next. Asano is not arrested and executed; he is invited to commit seppukuh, where he would be expected to stab himself in the guts and have a second, or kaishaku, usually a friend, cut off his head.

Asano does as is required of him. The samurai live by and die by the code. Often without seeming hesitation. Sometimes they seem absurdly eager to off themselves. It really comes across as surreal to non-Japanese outsiders. It has to.

But Asano’s suicide doesn’t fix things. The law dictates that his lands be seized, and that his loyal samurai retainers become masterless, becoming ronin.

Rating:

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