THE LOWER DEPTHS -- Kurosawa RULES
I was lucky enough (thank GOD I live in NYC) to see a revival of Kurosawa’s THE LOWER DEPTHS, his version of Maxim Gorky’s play. There’s not a lot of plot, but a great honking barrage of character, all played to perfection by members of the Kurosawa Repertory Company. The film details the lives of a bunch of down and outers who live in a flophouse that seems to be located at the bottom of some kind of ravine. The film opens with people dumping garbage down the ravine onto the roof of the flophouse. Get it? Among the residents of the flophouse are an old tinker and his terminally tubercular wife, a past his prime actor, a prostitute, a man claiming to be an ex-samurai and his wife who now make a living selling candy, and assorted gamblers and dregs of society. The occupants of this flophouse are used to being dumped on. Well, life happens: as the film progresses, there’s a lot of yelling, a death or two, some illusions are shared and several more are shattered, a couple of attempted seductions and a good deal of drinking and sleeping. There’s more to it than that, of course, but it gives you an idea of the rather free-form feel of what goes on. There don’t seem to be the rigorous plot mechanics of SEVEN SAMURAI or RASHOMON at work here. The ragtag nature of the film reflects the ragtag nature of the characters.
The great pleasure of watching this film is in watching a bunch of world-class character actors carry a movie. Most of the cast, like Toshiro Mifune and the indispensable Minoru Chiaki, are familiar from other Kurosawa films. Character is summed up in a single gesture, one remarkable actress whose name I can’t remember but who was a memorable Lady Macbeth in Kurosawa’s THRONE OF BLOOD tells you everything you need to know about her character by the way she slouches into a room. Minoru Chiaki seems to have been the Japanese Johnny Depp: he makes me laugh simply by standing up and holding one foot over the fire. The most startling performance comes from Bokuzen Hidari, as an old man who seems to be some kind of pilgrim (his exact status, as priest or pilgrim, is never spelled out in the subtitles but might be apparent to a Japanese audience). Hidari played the hilariously sad-faced farmer Yohei in SEVEN SAMURAI, and is usually used as comic relief. But in LOWER DEPTHS he plays what basically amounts to a Christ/Buddha figure: he’s probably the most intelligent and enlightened person in the film, certainly the least selfish and crass. The man goes through the film with a wide beautiful smile, dispensing intelligent advice and basic human decency but never coming across as self-righteous or smug, even occasionally suggesting a sort of deviousness that makes you wonder exactly what he’s up to. There’s none of the cartoonish grimacing that can occasionally mar his appearances in other films, you really want to just keep watching him. If he was a TV evangelist, you’d send him money. You might even vote for him.
One viewing just isn't enough for a film as dense as this one. The interactions among the characters are just too intricate, and I'll need to do some reading on other aspects of the movie. For example, I'd really like to know what the Japanese characters on the back of the pilgrim's kimono mean, if they offer some insight into his character or the rest of the film. But repeat viewings will be great fun. I've discovered a new movie to try to get to the bottom of. Criterion DVD, here I come.