“I’d always wanted to make Gorky’s play into […] a really easy and entertaining movie. After all The Lower Depths isn’t all gloomy. It is very funny and I remember laughing over it. That is because we are shown people who really want to live and we are them—I think—humorously.”
In 1957—the same year he transposed William Shakespeare’s Macbeth to feudal Japan as Throne of Blood—legendary director Akira Kurosawa set his sights on making another film adapted from foreign theater. Of little surprise given his admiration for Russian literature and its influence on his career (e.g., a movie version of Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot), he turned to Maxim Gorky’s sardonically funny The Lower Depths, about the deceitful lives of slum residents. First performed in 1902, Gorky’s play swiftly caught overseas attention, premiering in Japan in 1910;2 and while Kurosawa’s literary interests certainly factored into his choosing such material, he also knew of—and had even lived through—parallels in Japanese history.
In adapting The Lower Depths, the director and frequent writing collaborator Hideo Oguni changed the setting from Imperial Russia to Edo-era Japan, when “thousands were living almost unendurable lives. Their resentment we can still feel in the [satirical poems and entertainments] of the time.”3 Many Japanese in the 1950s had similarly lived through economic slumps (during the Great Depression, the Pacific War, the American Occupation), some still dwelling in neighborhoods wracked with poverty. Kurosawa’s memoir Something Like an Autobiography documents visits to the Tokyo neighborhood Kagurazaka, where his older brother Heigo lived “like some unemployed samurai” and whose residents were—not unlike the characters in The Lower Depths—“downright humorous. Even the small children made wisecracks.”4 Gorky’s play also acclimated to Kurosawa’s fascination with dishonesty, which he’d famously explored in 1950’s Rashomon. Filming this particular story allowed him to once again tackle how people manipulate/fabricate reality—this time with a vicious sense of humor.
The Lower Depths retains Gorky’s basic four-scene structure, taking place in a flophouse run by a greedy landlord (Ganjiro Nakamura) and his scheming wife (Isuzu Yamada); the latter sleeps with one of the tenants, a thief played by Toshiro Mifune, who in turn has designs on his mistress’s kinder sister (Kyoko Kagawa). Meanwhile, the other tenants—a gambler (Koji Mitsui), a samurai (Minoru Chiaki), a prostitute (Akemi Negishi), a washed-up actor (Kamatari Fujiwara), a tinker (Eijiro Tono) with an ailing wife (Eiko Miyoshi), etc.—go about their penurious lives, constantly squabbling and catching one another in fibs. (An opening gag consists of one resident boasting she’ll never be a housewife, unaware everyone knows she’s marrying an officer to escape poverty.) Into their existence comes the film’s Luka equivalent: a drifter (Bokuzen Hidari) with a perpetually positive, life-affirming attitude. Nearly everyone in the slum’s drawn to this man’s encouraging words, which ultimately derive from his own lies and benefit no one. The stranger proves cowardly, fleeing during a third-act scuffle wherein the landlord (the first to figure out the drifter’s less-than-saintly being) is killed. By drama’s end, the flophouse has lost additional residents, and those who remain carry on as they had before: wry and pessimistic, still spinning tales about themselves.
The Lower Depths represents its theatrical origins, in some ways, more so than Throne of Blood. Although the latter was charged with exaggerated Noh-style acting and music, it featured a lavish presentation: huge castle sets, location photography, special effects (e.g., a “moving forest” shot by Eiji Tsuburaya’s crew), and a climax wherein the film’s Macbeth equivalent is brutally assassinated by archers. By contrast, The Lower Depths is smaller and more confined. The four (substantially lengthed) sequences remain largely inside the flophouse, occasionally spilling into the outside yard; characters loaf, complain, hurl insults, and unknowingly reveal their own vices. The prostitute sobs over a noble lover she claims to have given up, her tale falling apart when the samurai notices the supposed man’s name changing mid-story. She later exposes her fellow tenant as an imposter. “I’ll beat you to death!” the samurai barks. Her reply: “If you really were a samurai, you’d say, ‘I’ll cut you down.’” In each instance, the surrounding characters roar with laughter at their companions’ feeble embellishments.
Kurosawa shoots these interactions often with multiple cameras, maintaining the atmosphere of a photographed play while still imposing a cinematic flair. The yard confrontations are particularly immersive: the players scamper about while their director calculates—sometimes in split-seconds—where the next shot needs to be; in other instances, Kurosawa resorts to stationary setups and creates momentum via dynamic changes in blocking. Throughout, the actors constantly interact with their ramshackle set (slamming doors, throwing themselves under sheets, leaning against angular beams), treating it like a participant in the drama. According to actress Isuzu Yamada, Kurosawa required sixty days of rehearsal on this project before shooting began5—plainly evident in the meticulous coordination on screen.
The entire cast delivers larger-than-life performances suitably emphasizing the characters’ energy, wit, and willingness to pounce on one another. Standouts include Isuzu Yamada as the landlady; Bokuzen Hidari as the seemingly noble drifter; and Kamatari Fujiwara as the washed-up actor. Mifune, of course, contributes his usual commanding presence, and in doing so creates a character unlike what his director intended. “I wanted [him] to play his part in the style of Nezumi-kozo [a fictional romantic robber akin to Robin Hood],” recalled Kurosawa, “but that didn’t work. Mifune is simply too well-built, he has too much presence. He can’t help but bring his own dignity to his roles.”6 Most impressive, however, is Koji Mitsui as the sardonic gambler, who claims one of the best closing shots in cinema history. The Lower Depths retains Gorky’s ending wherein one tenant wanders outside just before the residents engage in a frolicsome dance—a scene which itself took twenty days to rehearse;7 the samurai barges in, announcing the man hung himself. Kurosawa never shows the body, merely the reactions, finally cutting to a close-up of Mitsui, whose shocked expression gradually drains into an annoyed smirk. “It was such a great party. Then he had to go and ruin it. Bastard!”
Shot over four weeks, The Lower Depths enjoyed a September 1, 1957 test screening before going into roadshow release sixteen days later, attaining wide distribution at month’s end.8 Kurosawa by that time was in Europe, oblivious that, back home, the picture was receiving mixed to negative reviews. Film historian Donald Richie recalled Japanese critics not sharing the director’s amusement with the material and lashing at his “negative” attitude.9 A criticism shared by Shinobu Hashimoto, another frequent Kurosawa writing partner, who’d abstained from the project due to a neck injury and confessed in the memoir Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I to being turned off by the “dark, gloomy feel.”10
The picture did receive some accolades. For his performance, Mitsui took home the Tokyo Blue Ribbon Prize11 while Mifune won the Mainichi Best Actor Award12 and Yamada was named Best Actress by Kinema Junpo magazine (who likewise chose The Lower Depths as Japan’s tenth best picture of 1957).13 In spite of these honors, however, Kurosawa’s Gorky adaptation became—and to an extent remains—a somewhat overlooked entry in the director’s oeuvre. While not as grandiose as Seven Samurai (1954) or as stylish as Throne of Blood—or as memorable in its tackling man’s relation with the truth as Rashomon—this film version of The Lower Depths is every bit as funny as it is morose, viscerally bleak and simultaneously amusing. “The Lower Depths is a very funny play,” wrote Donald Richie, “and the film is a very funny film. If life is not something to cry over, then it must become something to laugh about.”14
- Richie, Donald. The Films of Akira Kurosawa (Third Edition, Expanded and Updated). Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996, p. 125
- McDonald, Keiko and Thomas Rimer. “Akira Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths.” Criterion DVD Booklet, 2004
- Richie, p. 125
- Kurosawa Akira. Something Like an Autobiography. New York: Vintage Books, 1983, pp. 81-3
- Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro. Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema. Durham: Duke University Press, 2000, p. 270
- Richie, p. 133
- Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. “The Lower Depths.” Kurosawa Production Co., 2002
- Galbraith, Stuart, IV. The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. New York: Faber & Faber, 2002, p. 240
- Richie, p. 133
- Hashimoto Shinobu. Translated by Lori Hitchcock Morimoto. Compound Cinematics: Akira Kurosawa and I. New York: Vertical, Inc., 2015, p. 161
- Galbraith, p. 240
- Conrad, David A. Akira Kurosawa and Modern Japan. Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2022, p. 127
- Galbraith, p. 245
- Richie, p. 133