Kurosawa adapted Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths in 1957. The film shows viewers life in a tenement situated in a pit where people toss garbage without thinking. From the vantage point of the working class people who toss the garbage, there’s nothing down below. (The middle and upper class probably don’t even know the pit’s there.) When Kurosawa takes you into the tenement, you meet a little society consisting of a former samurai, a drunken actor, a thief named Sutekichi, a prostitute, a vagabond wiseman, a metalworker, whose wife is dying, a stingy landlord and his wife and sister-in-law. The crucial relationship is the “love” triangle between the Sutekichi, Osugi, the landlady and Okayo, the landlady’s younger, sister. Sutekichi and Osugi have been involved for some time, but it’s all about sex, not love. The thief becomes smitten and convinced that if Okayo would marry him, he’d magically be able to mend his ways. Of course, Osugi soon becomes jealous. She’s not going to let the thief run off with there sister.
The Lower Depths is a close up look at poverty in the Edo era (1603-1868). Dirt poor is an apt description. The characters’ clothing is ripped and tattered. They’re all disheveled. The tenement itself is squalid. You can bet the landlady isn’t going to spruce it up any time soon.
Though the characters were intriguing, it took me a while to warm up to the story. To their credit neither Gorky nor Kurosawa romanticize the poor. We can see from their behavior, that their behavior is a major cause of their poverty. The film mixes the misery with their capacity for joy and insight. The vagabond wiseman is like a priest and not only offers wisdom to the dying wife, the prostitute and others, but is willing to debate his beliefs with Sutekichi, who’s not ready to buy this holy talk. There are scenes that borrow songs, dance and conventions from Kabuki theater, but Kurosawa is careful not to present the characters as stereotypical happy poor people.
I came to find the characters engaging, though Osugi is clearly a villain and Okayo a saint; more morally gray tones than simple black and white could help, but I guess that such nuance not in Gorky’s play. The essay I read on Criterion.com, points out that the film seeks to indict society with regard to its relationship to the poor. We just see how absent other classes are and how the landlady mistreats her tenants. For a real indictment, I would have liked to have seen some examples of interactions across class lines.
The Criterion Collection DVD features a commentary track by Donald Richie, the Japanese film expert. Richie provides great insights. Since the film’s in Japanese, it was easy to read the subtitles while listening to the commentary.