December 13, 2008

The Lower Depths (1957 film)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni. Based on the play by Maxim Gorky.

The Setup:

A tinkerer with a dying wife. An alcoholic actor. A prostitute who dreams of romance. A vendor with the hots for a bumbling cop. A shogun stripped of his fortunes. A gambler. A pilgrim just passing through. A thief in the midst of an affair with his landlord's wife, even though his heart is dedicated to the woman's sister.

This random gaggle of people have formed an odd family of sorts as they all share a cramped shack on the edge of a compost heap.

The Good:

- I'm continually amazed at how Kurosawa manages to take foreign stories deeply rooted in their cultures and traditions and perfectly transpose them to his own society without losing any of their depth or meaning. And unlike Throne of Blood, here he actually keeps almost every line of dialogue as is.

- The sets, the costumes, the use of weather. These are elements Kurosawa excels at and he does so once again here, using them to show the rotting, tattered, soul-crushing sphincter of the world in which our characters find themselves.

- Everywhere you look in the cast, you find veterans of Kurosawa digging into some of the best material of their careers. Toshiro Mifune. Isuzu Yamada. Minoru Chiaki. Kamatari Fujiwara. Akemi Negishi. Koji Mitsui. Eijiro Tono. Haruo Tanaka. Eiko Miyoshi. Atsushi Watanabe. Kichijiro Ueda. Yu Fujiki. All are at the top of their games and are joined by newcomers Kyoko Kagawa, Ganjiro Nakamura, and Nijiko Kiyokawa, to make one of the best screen ensembles I've seen. And at the heart of it all is Bokuzen Hidari. He's usually cast in small, comical supporting roles, but here he shines as the wandering pilgrim passing through these lives, using kindness and good cheer to try and boost their hopes and dreams, until stubbornness and cynicism bring everything crashing down. He's always been a beloved element of the Kurosawa "troupe" so it's great to finally see him in a part where he gets to show the true depths of his skills.

- If I heard correctly, there was no score for this film. That's a good decision here. Music in film is generally used to enhance the emotion of a sequence, but its absence allows us to focus more deeply on the blunt feelings already existing on the surface of these down-trodden characters. And it's contrasted by a pair of drunken, scat-style musical numbers that are marvelous.

The Bad:

- I enjoy Toshiro Mifune's performance, I really do. As much as I typically accuse him of stepping just that one inch into over-the-top territory, he plays things a bit more low-key and natural this time around. The problem is that his role of the thief was originally written for a much younger man and the theme of youthful impulsiveness just doesn't come through very clear when played by a rugged 37-year-old.

- Kurosawa puts together a marvelous ensemble of regulars, and he couldn't find a part for Takashi Shimura? The sleazy landlord, the tinkerer with the dying wife, the wandering pilgrim, the washed-up actor... so many great choices. As much as I enjoy the performers who actually do play those roles, Shimura was one of Kurosawa's greatest collaborators and it just doesn't make sense to me that he isn't a part of this.

In Conclusion:

Filled with characters equally hilarious and tragic, Kurosawa gives his company of regulars some of the finest material of their careers as he digs deep into the lowest depths of an overbearing society. Truly one of his best.

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