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Lower Depths, The (1957)
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by Jay Seaver

"Those with nothing covet just a bit more."
4 stars

I am not sure which exact time period "The Lower Depths" takes place in, and I am not certain that it matters. It is a 1957 Japanese movie based upon a play by a Russian, first performed in 1892. The exact origins are unimportant, though - the lot of the jobless and hopeless seldom seems to change.

Nearly a dozen of them are sharing a crowded barn, or bunkhouse of some sort. Tonosama (Minoru Chiaki) tells us he was a samurai once. Tomekichi (Eijiro Tono) is a tinker, but caring for his dying wife Asa (Eiko Miyoshi) has bankrupted him. An elderly actor (Kamatari Fujiwara) claims he can't do his part of cleaning because of a life of drinking and jokes with Yoshisaburo (Koji Mitsui), a gambler; both of them look down upon prostitute Osen (Akemi Negishi). The only one with anything resembling a private room is thief Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune), presumably because he's sleeping with Osugi (Isuzu Yamada), the landlord - although it's her sweet sister Okayo (Kyoko Kagawa) that he really likes. She's just brought in a new resident, Kahei (Bokuzen Hidari), an elderly pilgrim looking for shelter during the cold months.

The Lower Depths is based on a play and feels like it; most of the action takes place in a single room and consists of the characters talking back and forth. There's not necessarily a great deal of wisdom to be gleaned from it, but it's good talk; we quickly get a sense of who these characters are and what sort of past and present they are carrying around. A plot eventually forms around the quadrangle made up of Sutekichi, Osugi, Okayo, and Osugi's husband (Ganjiro Nakamura), but slowly, in such a way as to make it clearly secondary to everything else going on.

Granted, that's the part that most of us will likely perceive as the main plot, because those are the scenes with Kurosawa's great leading man, Toshiro Mifune. It is difficult for a star of Mifune's stature to quietly fade into an ensemble, and he doesn't quite do it here, although he doesn't push his fellow cast members aside to hog the stage. He is, perhaps, surprisingly, the most subdued of the cast members, not mugging the way that Fujiwara does or yelling as others do. Mifune, Hidari, Kagawa, and Tono all play their parts with a relatively even temper, giving us hints of what they much be like if those layers are peeled back, letting their own individual personalities form.

All of the characters, especially the residents, are making claims of being different than they appear in some way. Tomekichi insists he is not like the others, but just suffering from a temporary setback; Sutekichi claims he is ready to reform his thieving ways. Osen drinks for the opportunity to cry over lost loves. All, in one way or another, are looking for some sort of escape from the squalid reality that makes them feel less than those world at large, even though they all believe that they should be ahead of the other all-but-homeless people in the room. Most are kidding themselves, justifying their staying in the same place; few seem to be able to use their imaginations of a better life as a way to make a change.

Kurosawa never beats us over the head with this concept, although the parallels between the characters are plain. What he does do well is build a sense of camaraderie among the characters that still leaves room for antagonism, and avoids finding a special nobility in their poverty; the film is empathic without being disdainful or patronizing. He and cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki shoot it very nicely; although early scenes deliberately emphasize its theatrical origins - one repeated shot fits what feels like a stage set neatly in the frame - he does get us out of the house at times and bring us in close at others, just enough to make it feel like a movie.

The film does have its flaws - the story of Sutekichi and Okayo takes center stage just in time to become forced and then be ushered off-screen, with everything after consequently seeming at loose ends. It eventually rights itself, ending on just the right pitch-black note, and thus making it much easier to remember the good than the awkward last few scenes and the bits that go on too long.

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originally posted: 04/14/10 14:21:28
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  DVD: 22-Jun-2004



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