Lower Depths, The (1957)

The Lower Depths (1957), directed by Akira Kurosawa.

In a shanty town outsiders think of as a rubbish heap, a collection of the poorest people scrape out a bare existence. We have a broken samurai, an alcoholic actor who can't remember any of his old lines, a pot scrubber indifferent to his dying wife, and prostitutes deluding themselves that they were once loved. They live without compassion or generosity of spirit.

The Thief (Toshiro Mifune) has been having an affair with the landlord's wife but now wants to run off with her younger sister. This will cause all sorts of trouble.

Mifune is the big name in the cast, but it is very much an ensemble piece with many familiar faces from the director's other films. Particularly notable: Bokuzen Hidari, he of the mask-like tragedy/comedy face. Off screen he worked as a comedian; here he is a simple but wise Buddhist pilgrim, helping the suffering with practical, resigned common sense.

Kurosawa wanted to make a filmed stage play, something "theatrical", and chose this Gorky title which was apparently well known in Japan. He met with Jean Renoir after both had made their own film versions; I wish I could have listened in to that conversation.

It is described as a "comical" treatment but the comedy is very hard to find. It's pretty grim. But note: Kurosawa thought the picture cheerful and humorous. The characters, although at the bottom, still had hope of climbing out.

Available on DVD from Criterion.

Donald Richie gives a valuable commentary track on the Criterion DVD, emphasizing the visual design. It was exhaustively rehearsed for weeks, 2 or 3 times a day, full costume, lights and moving cameras without film.

Richie knew many of the people involved and his recollections of visiting the film sets during that era are always worthwhile.

Kurosawa: "I direct so that I have something to edit". Those who worked with him allow that "who was the best director in the world?" is a debatable question, but will insist that Kurosawa was the best editor of all time.