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aka - Donzoko
Japan 1957
Directed by
Akira Kurosawa
125 minutes
Rated M

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
4 stars

The Lower Depths

The filming of Maxim Gorky's play was a project that Akira Kurosawa, a long-time fan of Russian literature (he also filmed an adaptation of Dostoevsky's 'The Idiot' in 1951) cherished from his student days in the 1920s when he experienced experimental theatre productions inspired by theories of Russian avant-gardists, Stanislavsky and Meyerhold.

The Lower Depths keeps close to its theatrical origins, with only one interior set and one exterior and despite the transposition to Edo-era Japan keeping close to the action and dialogue of the original play. As a theatrical piece with its four-act structure this tragi-comedy about a group of destitutes living in a slum tenement, with its tight ensemble cast, works well with Kurosawa using cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki’s dynamic camera angles, striking compositions and matching editing to invest the relatively plotless film with energy.

Kurosawa regularly featured the poor and outcast in his films, whether in contemporary dramas such as Drunken Angel (1948) or Red Beard (1965) or in his samurai films where they often provided an absurdist counterpoint to the main action. Here it is as if the latter group were elevated to a film in their own right.

A group of wretchedly poor indigents, including a gambler, an actor, a thief, a former samurai, a prostitute, and a tinker and his dying wife, pass their days playing cards and getting drunk. They bicker with each other but are united by their fear of their slum landlord (Ganjiro Nakamura) whose wife (Isuzu Yamada) is having an affair with the thief (Toshiro Mifune) who is in turn is in love with the landlady's younger sister (Kyoko Kagawa). Into this situation wanders an old priest (Bokuzen Hidari) who suggests that no matter what their situation there is always the hope of better days to come.

Filmed in 1936 by Jean Renoir who gave the play a much more optimistic spin Kurosawa’s empathetic but clear-eyed version stays closer to Gorky’s cheerless original.  It is a compelling portrait of the spiritually demoralizing effect of poverty and the ways in which no matter what the circumstances human beings engage in the same games of dominance and sub-dominance.

The fourth act feels a little long and somewhat ragged in resolving the main story of the thief and his lover affairs but the ending which involves a kind of Boschean dance of the damned is marvellous and the overall effect as striking a piece of filmed theatre as you are likely to see.




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