Akira Kurosawa was a man of his time, who participated fully in the artistic and intellectual world of Japan from the 1930s until his death in 1998. Although filmgoers may think of him in terms of the screen images he created, Kurosawa maintained a deep interest in the theater throughout his entire life. Such films as Ran (1985) and Throne of Blood (1957)—based on Shakespeare’s King Lear and Macbeth, respectively—and The Lower Depths (based on Maxim Gorky’s play of the same name) are among the better-known examples of his dedication to the stage. Perhaps more importantly, these films bear witness to the social and political significance of drama in the Japanese intellectual world during Kurosawa’s lifetime.
At the beginning of the twentieth century, the Japanese modern theater movement (Shingeki) set out to replace the classic Kabuki style with a spoken drama of social concern. Among foreign dramatists, it was not surprising that Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, and Gorky were among those most appreciated by theater audiences. Kurosawa believed in the social and spiritual ideals of these writers, and his conviction that humankind could improve itself through exposure to an artistic rendering of the issues facing them remained a keystone in his thinking throughout his long and prolific career. Gorky was one of Kurosawa’s favorite dramatists, and he had long wanted to bring the writer’s work to the screen.
The Lower Depths, first produced in Russia in 1902, was considered scandalous by middle-class audiences. Chronicling the desperate lives of the poor and downtrodden urban masses roughly a decade before the Russian Revolution, its unflinching look at class systems gone awry nevertheless struck a chord with audiences beyond Russia’s borders, and the play soon became a worldwide theatrical sensation. It had its first Tokyo performances in 1910, directed by Kaoru Osanai––one of the foremost young directors of the New Theater movement—and continued to attract audiences in Japan well into the 1970s.
Kurosawa found the work to be an exceptional example of probing social critique with relevance to Japanese history. To make the play accessible to his audiences, however, he had to find an appropriate corollary to the seamy side of life in late nineteenth-century Imperial Russia, where Gorky’s poor folk lived worlds away from the wealthy aristocrats of St. Petersburg and Moscow. Kurosawa and his scriptwriter, Hideo Oguni, solved this problem by shifting the scene to a half-ruined tenement in Edo (renamed Tokyo in 1868) in the middle of the nineteenth century, a period known for its prosperity, and added texture to this milieu by making brilliant use of theatrical and musical conventions rooted in the Japanese commoner’s culture of the day. The play otherwise is not much changed. Action, characters, and dialogue translated easily into the social fabric of the Edo period, when masses of urban poor lived in appalling misery.
Gorky’s powerful expression of a universal theme in The Lower Depths is an equally natural fit for Kurosawa’s lifelong thematic concern for the individual living within a fragmented society. As the opening credits roll, the first of a number of long takes (used to great effect throughout the film) locates “the lower depths” for us. Kurosawa gets right to the point with a dramatic contrast between “the world out there” and “the world here.” A 360-degree pan begins with a small hilltop temple adorned with trees. The camera then takes note of an imposing warehouse of the kind used by wealthy merchants, and moves on to a pair of Buddhist acolytes, who show their indifference to the poor below by dumping leaves over the edge of the hill. Kurosawa adds to the irony by sounding the temple gong five times. The people below cannot hear it, but we are meant to, and know that it summons the monks to their higher calling.
A cut takes us inside a dilapidated tenement for our first glimpse of several dwellers. These wretches, draped in filthy rags, are clearly the lowest members of society. As in many Kurosawa films, the poverty and ignorance that cripple self-awareness are used as metaphors for the failure of society at large. With its setting alone, it could be said that Kurosawa took this depiction of poverty too far, though his art director, Yoshiro Muraki, claims that the set used for the film is a faithful replica of an Edo-period tenement. The mud walls that separated the original units have crumbled, leaving just two spaces, one in the foreground and one in the background. What critics have taken for the rows of beds in a flophouse are in fact the remains of closets. Some of the inhabitants, desperate for their bit of privacy, have given them makeshift doors of cast-off, dirty kimonos and cloth. Kurosawa’s set reflects his insistence on historical detail and provides numerous opportunities to exploit its theatricality.
Kurosawa makes the most of asymmetrical composition here at the outset. By giving a leaning pillar foreground magnitude he skews our view of the scene. This seemingly arbitrary crookedness speaks to his (and Gorky’s) sense of moral imbalance––as witness to these living dregs of an indifferent society confined to this nasty narrow space we see between shadowy pillars and walls. No temple gong marks spiritual progress here. Instead the tinker’s hammer beats its unfeeling metallic tattoo on a pot while his sick wife waits (unnervingly) for death. Such are the facts of life in this sordid realm a world away from the silken refinements of the shogun’s castle and prosperous merchants’ lives in other, sunnier parts of Edo.
Indeed, these outcasts live beyond the pale of the Buddhist version of salvation. Kurosawa makes this clear with a comic chorus that was popular in the Edo period. It is a Shinto shrine festivity, bakabayashi––literally, “fools’ orchestra.” The irony is impossible to miss. The choristers in this case are the poorest of the poor, mocking their own despair. When it comes to salvation, they do not have a prayer. The songs are essentially a succession of musical babblings with occasional barbs that take aim at the avarice and hypocrisy of Buddhist monks. They sing in sarcastic praise of all the salvation money can buy. Twice the camera clinches the argument with a non-committal view of a tiny Shinto shrine in a dead-end alleyway. It has the look of a cast-off appliance, a clear indication that hope and salvation are out of reach for wretches like these––and these wretches know it, too.
Audiences in the 1950s would have recognized a number of popular comic actors in the director’s cast. One was Bokuzen Hidari, as the pilgrim. Another was Nijiko Kiyokawa in the role of Otaki, a candy vendor. The two porters were played by the funny-looking sumo wrestler Fujitayama, and Atsushi Watanabe whose face bore a famous resemblance to the comic hyottoko mask, with clownish nose and goggle eyes. Kurosawa used these elements of comic relief to lighten Gorky’s resolutely dark view of the human condition. Gorky’s original does have some moments of humor, even charm, but the mood remains generally dark and virtually hopeless.
Like other Kurosawa films, The Lower Depths starts with the premise that the world has disintegrated. His characters engage in their search for alternatives as they strive to adjust to social chaos and to survive as individuals. Here, however, no single character holds center stage, and Kurosawa emphasizes this remarkable ensemble cast through his mastery of multiple-camera techniques. He angles in on these unfortunates from every which way, individually and en masse. The result is the effect of montage––a piecemeal/whole autopsy of suffering and helplessness cruelly relieved by a fleeting exposure to hope and uplift––the play inside the play.
The Lower Depths collects case histories, each a vignette of an individual’s attitudes, values, and motives playing off one another to elucidate the conflict between illusion and reality; the world “out there” compared to the world “in here.” Some characters, like the former samurai and the prostitute escape into a world of fantasy. Others endure in silence. Enter the old priest with his message of hope. He helps the tinker’s dying wife believe that a better life awaits. He leads the actor to believe that hope of a cure for his alcohol poisoning lies in a temple “out there.” The thief counts on love to make him an honest man and help him escape from the lower depths. In contrast to all is the gambler––a kind of seer, who stoically accepts his fate. It is the gambler who has the film’s last word.
When the pilgrim leaves, so does some of the ineffable stuff of dreams. Grim realities reclaim the scene, but Kurosawa, as always, comes out in support of effort, no matter what the outcome. His characters falter and fall and fail, but the potential for regeneration is always there. “A life of kindness will someday be rewarded.” This is where Kurosawa puts his trust, not in any brand of officious religion. The candy vendor gives the tinker’s wife not just one piece but a handful—a difference as large as life and death for her just then. The prostitute quarrels with her down-and-out samurai, then lends him money. A laborer spends his hard-earned money to buy sake to share. Okayo tends to the tinker’s sick wife. Examples of good works multiply. The pilgrim, not a Buddhist monk or holy man, but a commonsense moral individual, is Kurosawa’s altruist of choice.
Western viewers familiar with Japanese classical theater might find a virtuoso nod in that direction in the scene where the actor takes the tinker’s ailing wife out for a breath of fresh air. Kurosawa makes this altruistic moment into a magnificent parody of michiyuki—the journey sequence in a Kabuki play. It usually features a handsome man and his lover, often a courtesan, on their way to a rendezvous with death. Here, as befits these lower depths and Kurosawa’s high intents, the old actor leads the way michiyuki style, accompanied by a tottering crone. Their progress down the length of the sordid alley also mimics the hanamichi Kabuki passageway. Through his use of michiyuki and other such classical devices, Kurosawa unobtrusively bridges styles to strengthen his version of modern drama, with its universal social implications.
The actor also leads the way to the film’s perplexing ending. Here, too, a number of cultural specifics need explaining in the West. The bakabayashi returns for a spell of drunken merriment. This chorus, as before, pokes fun at this world and the next as being in favor of the rich. The singers themselves find a kind of saving grace in this shared mockery of their own despair. Even the antisocial grouch, the tinker, joins in at the last. The scene comes to a sudden halt when news arrives of the actor’s suicide. “It was such a great party. Then he had to go and ruin everything”––or so the gambler says.
This being a Kurosawa film, the burden of compassion is transferred to us. When the lights come up, the theatricality this film is famous for, recedes along with its comic texture. But it is those occasional threads of comic sensibility that underscore the poignancy of this entire film. We are awakened to somber reality, to the pathos of the downtrodden. The Lower Depths, along with Ran, may be Kurosawa’s two darkest films, the most unremittingly truthful in their look at “man’s inhumanity to man.”
Keiko McDonald is a professor of Japanese Cinema and Literature at the University of Pittsburgh and has written extensively on both subjects. Her major books include Japanese Classical Theater in Films (1994) and From Book to Screen: Modern Japanese Literature in Films (2000). She is completing How to Read a Japanese Film, a textbook for Japanese film classes.