Lower Depths, The (1957)

Lower Depths, The (1957)

“How can you go to hell if you’re already there?”

Amidst the miseries of a flophouse in Edo-era Japan, a thief (Toshiro Mifune) falls in love with the sister (Kyoko Kagawa) of his married landlady (Isuzu Yamada), who jealously seeks revenge.

Genres, Themes, Actors, and Directors:

  • Akira Kurosawa Films
  • Ensemble Cast
  • Japanese Films
  • Love Triangle
  • Play Adaptations
  • Revenge
  • Toshiro Mifune Films

The above synopsis of this adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s 1902 stage play — transported by writer/director Kurosawa to 19th century Japan — isn’t quite accurate, given that The Lower Depths is actually a classic ensemble tale, one more concerned with representing the miserable lives of its collective cast than with focusing on any particular protagonist’s personal tragedy. To that end, we bear witness to a cynical tinker (Eijiro Tono) waiting impatiently for his sick wife (Eiko Miyoshi) to die; a whiny prostitute (Akemi Negishi) lamenting her fall from grace; an alcoholic actor (Kamatari Fujiwara) complaining about the damage he’s doing to his “bitol organs”; and more.

Unfortunately, Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni’s relatively faithful screenplay — strategically limited to the confines of the sound-stage flophouse — basically consists of the characters sitting around kvetching about their lot in life, and yelling at each other. It’s difficult to keep track of who’s who, or to really care about any of their fates, given that so many weakly developed storylines are overlapping. Not even Mifune’s love triangle with Kagawa and Yamada bears much impact — we haven’t been given enough of a chance to know them as individuals. All in all, this is a surprisingly disappointing Kurosawa flick, one that I don’t consider must-see viewing except for his most steadfast fans. If you do decide to watch it, however, wait for a most enjoyable and bizarrely impromptu musical “performance” near the end — my favorite scene by far.

Redeeming Qualities and Moments:

  • Isuzu Yamada as Mifune’s jealous lover
  • Kazuo Yamasaki’s cinematography

Must See?
No; feel free to skip this one unless you’re a diehard Kurosawa fan.


One thought on “Lower Depths, The (1957)

  1. Not a must.

    Jeez, this is one depressing movie! And not even depressing for a reason, really – since it seems all of the characters have practically willed themselves into a pathetic existence. We don’t particularly learn anything from watching a bunch of down-and-outs who whine, mumble and lash out at each other. Yes, at one point, a vagrant with something of an uplifting spirit does come into their company for a short time, but he has little effect on the group, and then he’s gone.

    Virtually plotless, the piece offers an opportunity for ensemble acting – and the cast does what it can. The flavor is sort of Chekhov mixed with Samuel Beckett – but ultimately it’s all rather pointless.

    Special mention, though, should go to Isuzu Yamada. I believe Yamada gives the best performance in this film – and if ffs are considering seeing ‘The Lower Depths’, I would probably recommend it just for the chance to see Yamada. Here – rising to the occasion in a less-than-worthy film – Yamada holds viewer interest easily, getting under the skin of a shrew and letting fly with abandon. (In this period in her career, Yamada was in something of a full swing: prior to this film, she had just starred in Kurosawa’s ‘Throne of Blood’, Naruse’s ‘Flowing’ and Ozu’s ‘Tokyo Twilight’ – all of which, in my opinion, are must-see movies.)

    Kurosawa had the habit of balancing his crowd-pleasing hits with projects that spoke to his own heart – and, for some inexplicable reason, this was one of them. Overall, it is a very long haul.

    Peary seems to think the bulk of Kurosawa’s better-known titles will suffice for ffs – but I think I’ve seen all of Kurosawa’s work and suggest that ffs may want to track down more than what Peary recommends (i.e., ‘Sanshiro Sugata’, ‘No Regrets For Our Youth’, ‘I Live in Fear’ and ‘Red Beard’).

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