Tuesday, March 16, 2010

The Lower Depths (1957)


A thief (Toshiro Mifune), an elderly pilgrim (Bokuzen Hidari), an evil landlady (Isuzu Yamada), and other misfits try to cope with their less than satisfactory life during a harsh Japanese winter.

Filled with Kurosawa regulars, with the exception of no Takashi Shimura, The Lower Depths is a dark look at a group of individuals trying to understand how they got to their current down trodden life. Living in the nearly destroyed farm house of a devilish landlady, and her older husband. Just about every group you can imagine is represented, and in each case we're allowed a unique look at the troubles that have plagued their life. Now, Kurosawa being Kurosawa, he's not going to spell it all out for you, instead Kurosawa perfectly uses nuances, subtle actions, and great character actors to bring forth these vibrant characters.

Inspired by the Maxim Gorky play of the same name, Kurosawa perfectly adapts this early 1900s play into the Edo period of Japan. What makes this adaptation work so brilliantly is Kurosawa's simple play setup, keeping the camera in the barn fixated on these characters well over 75% of the runtime. Moving the camera through the barn, we're allowed to see these characters as observers, and in return we're given the chance to understand them. This is quite obviously Kurosawa's great interest, as he really takes the time to get into the the stories behind these people. Something I've felt Kurosawa has always shown desire for, in his other works.

Now there is a central plot, involving a three-way love triangle centered around the lovable thief, Sutekichi (played by the always vibrant Toshiro Mifune), but even that takes the heavy back burner to the backstories. It's here that the varied actors really get a chance to shine.

Centering on Bokuzen Hidari, as the lovable old pilgrim Kahei, who arrives towards the beginning, and acts as a grandfather figure to those characters farther gone mentally. Supported, and intellectually opposed, by Koji Mitsui, as the intelligent gambler, Yoshisabur, who finds their personal predicaments more amusing than depressing. The sparing between these two not only provides great insight to the moral arguments being display. As well as Kurosawa's oft displayed love for analyzing the plight of the poor.

All of these are supported by Kurosawa's general character skill, using beautiful cinematography (much in the same respect as his 1965 film Red Beard) to focus attention as needed. Now I'll admit, within this movie's comedic moments, and light hearted tone, lies a very dark, and painful subtext, something that will give the viewer a chance to maul over for days to come. Especially as its plot comes to fruition, and the characters begin to unfold. Still, it's a character piece, and an exciting one at that.
Without a doubt, The Lower Depths ranks in my top list of Kurosawa films. Perfectly challenging its viewer both emotionally and intellectually, to a point that makes it impossible to deny or ignore. I greatly hope that it one day receives its due credit among the Kurosawa fans out there.

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