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AK Online Film Club #18: The Lower Depths

donzokoThis month’s Film Club offering is the 1957 film The Lower Depths, based on the Maxim Gorky play of the same name.

Kurosawa began work on The Lower Depths soon after adapting another stage play onto the big screen, Shakespeare’s Macbeth as Throne of Blood (also 1957). Although both films are based on stage plays, they are very different works. Where Throne of Blood is desperate and dark, The Lower Depths is much more comic, where Throne of Blood took extraordinary liberties with its source material, The Lower Depths follows Gorky’s play very closely, and where Throne of Blood is driven exclusively by the actions of its main character, The Lower Depths is an ensemble piece where the real protagonist is the location.

The Lower Depths is also far less well known than either its predecessor, or the film that would succeed it, the light hearted adventure film The Hidden Fortress (which we will, in fact, discuss next month). Yet, there is plenty to discuss in this movie, from its characters and actors’ performances to Kurosawa’s use of the set and the camera in this film that would be his last filmed under the “standard” (or non widescreen) aspect ratio.




In my opinion, The Lower Depths is one of the worst films Kurosawa ever made. I mean I really hate it. I found it so dull, not comical, just dull, distant and cold. The comedy aspect just went right over my head. I didn’t know what I was watching.

I think it’s one of those films that suffers from being a film. What I mean by that is, is that the material is suitable for theatre but not film. It just doesn’t work in the film format. Just like the film Doubt which was an absolute mess of a film.



Wow, this is exciting. The last time we had someone just come out and dis a Kurosawa film outright, it was Vili v.s. Seven Samurai…and Vili met every argument with “nah”.

Let’s see if we can get more from you, Ryan! Explain your response in detail!

The Lower Depths is one of my very favorites! I think the astonishingly masterful choreography of the single set conceived of as a stage set allows the actors to really shine. I believe it is Kamatari Fujiwara’s star turn-his genius role. Also, Bokuzen Hidari’s! It is a disturbing film…but I find myself laughing out loud at the “impromptu” song and dance that is nearly the conclusion of the film. I also find the Noh clapper sound coming down hard at the gambler’s concluding words, as he looks at the audience and gives the final line a happy confluence of cinematic and Japanese culture.

It absolutely astonishes me that Gorky translates so well into Kurosawa’s Japan. I suppose that the message of the film is the universality of self-deception and misery in the lower depths of poverty.

It may be worth asking if the misery is self-inflicted and the cause of their poverty and low social status, or if it is the result of poverty and low social status.



I’m with cocoskyavitch on this one. It’s a marvelously wicked and human film about suffering and dreams, with Kurosawa regulars (I’ll second the Bokuzen mention) giving us some of the best performances of their careers, all in one of the most meticulously unforgettable sets I’ve ever seen.

And I also agree with my surprise at just how faithful the film is. While a few professions are altered due to cultural differences, well over 90 percent of the flick, down to the dialogue, is straight from Gorky’s play. I wonder why Kurosawa didn’t break it down and reinvent it like he did other adaptations. Could it be he found a kindred spirit of sorts in the material?

My one problem with the piece is Mifune. He’s great in the role of the thief, but I felt, as with the play, that it was written for a much younger man acting on the thoughtless impulsiveness of youth.

But that’s it. It’s otherwise a fantastic, though hard, film, which is best summed up by the final few minutes.


Vili Maunula

I’m currently reading the Gorky play, which you can by the way download for free from Archive.org. Just don’t bother with the OCRd “full text” version which seems to be full of errors — download the PDF file instead.

It’s my first time reading the play, and it is interesting to see how faithful the film really is, just like Noel mentioned. The question why Kurosawa chose to keep the play so intact is something that I have been thinking while reading, but I have no answers yet. I’m still formulating something of a write-up, and I’ll probably need to watch the film once more before I feel I can say anything potentially interesting. As I’ll be travelling until Tuesday next week (Rome), it will still be a while. But that’s only good, as I feel that The Lower Depths is a film that you sort of have to sip in slowly, like good wine, tasting bits and pieces of it one at a time in order to arrive to take in full flavour.

I don’t have any problem with Mifune in the film, although I can’t quite see why Richie considers this the finest performance of his career, either. Well, it’s all very subjective I suppose.

I made a mistake in my intro, by the way. The Lower Depths was not the last non-widescreen Kurosawa film: he of course returned once more to the aspect ratio with Dodesukaden. That’s another link between the two films which, as Noel mentioned in another thread, are almost like companion pieces.



I’m happy that NoelCT and Vili like the film! Ryan, I still think it would be interesting and useful to know why you don’t like it.

, you make a good point about the Mifune role. It does seem as if Mifune is a bit “long-in-the-tooth” for the role. I suppose I am such a sucker, though, I see his futtering about with the comb and whatnot indicative of a transparent silly playboy. Makes him just a bit more likely to be in the “Lower Depths” because something about him is off.

It makes we wonder about self-deception, and whether or not the character Mifune plays often starts romances as if they might mean something, then abandons them. Perhaps that is his modus opeandi. Gosh, I need to read some critical analysis of the character motivations of the play, if, as Vili suggests, it is an amazingly literal adaptation. And one more aside; if it really is so literal, then why didn’t Donald Richie criticize it for being so, as he did with The Idiot?



Hey sorry for the late response; I hope no one thought I was copping out of a discussion because the majority likes the film while I hate it! I’ve just been really busy with my first week at University! Anyway…

Akira Kurosawa is my favourite film director, and yet The Lower Depths to me is certainly one of the worst films he made, along with Dodesukaden.

So first things first, why do I hate it so much? Well first of all, as I mentioned previously, I think it’s a film that would work a lot more suitably in theatre due to the fact that it is minimalist, it possesses an ensemble cast of characters, and the film very much relies on the performances of its actors above all.

Another bother was the fact that I found it very dull. The pacing is very slow for a supposed “comedy” film, and I found it to lack a proper narrative, character development and I also didn’t understand the plot or what the point of the film was. The characters in the film are also cold and distant, and so therefore I can’t empaphise nor relate to any of them. The lack of purpose I got from the film also perplexed me, especially considering Kurosawa is well known for pointing out social issues and the like. While I see that he’s showing us what poverty was like during a certain era of Japan, it didn’t aid my existing knowledge or open my mind, so to speak. Whereas films like Stray Dog highlight the importance and ability of choice in a time of social chaos and uncertainty, The Lower Depths, on the other hand, fails on any kind of moral message or vision to put across to the viewer. Normally, considering it is a “comedy” film, I would disregard looking for any sort of moral messages or teachings. But I didn’t find any of it funny, so I guess I tried looking for some element of meaning instead. It is certainly no conventional comedy. In fact, I would argue it was a dark comedy, with emphasis on “dark”.

I was also thoroughly disappointed with the ending; I recall a lot of characters singing and dancing and then a sudden ending that just came out of nowhere. Perhaps people found that funny. I personally felt frustrated. Frustrated with what I was witnessing on screen. Frustrated with Kurosawa’s choice to film Gorky’s script. Frustrated with its anti-climactic and annoying ending. Frustated with some of the jarring performances.

(If some of this is incomprehendible, I apologise; I’m multi-tasking and watching television, and I haven’t seen The Lower Depths in a long time).


Vili Maunula

Coco: if it really is so literal, then why didn’t Donald Richie criticize it for being so, as he did with The Idiot?

Richie actually mentions this on the Criterion commentary track, saying that while both are literal adaptations, The Lower Depths in his opinion works much better. I don’t think that he goes into any great details why he thinks so, though.

But since I pretty much share this view of the two films, I may be able to offer something. The crucial thing to note is that the two source texts are very different from one another, one being a 600-700 page book, and the other an average length stage play. In terms of their form, length and pacing, stage plays transfer much easier onto the big screen, while a literal adaptation of a novel is really difficult, not least because novels tend to make use of narrative conventions very different from cinema (just think for instance of the way novels can without much effort dip in and out of people’s inner worlds, which is really difficult to achieve well in cinema). I therefore suppose that Richie’s problem with The Idiot is not actually that it is a literal adaptation; rather, this is the reason for the real problem, which is that this particular literal adaptation just doesn’t quite work as cinema (at least for him), and he feels that the film could have worked better had it deviated more from the novel’s conventions, and had it applied more cinematic techniques. Or that, at least, is how I understand Richie’s criticism of The Idiot. This doesn’t then automatically apply to The Lower Depths for the simple reason that in it the literal nature of the adaptation actually works fairly well, which is largely thanks to stage conventions being closer to cinematic ones.

Ryan, obviously, thinks otherwise. It seems to me that his criticism of The Lower Depths is similar to Richie’s criticism of The Idiot — for Ryan, The Lower Depths is still too stage like, and lacks that something extra that would make it an interesting and worthwhile piece of cinema. It is certainly a valid point of view.

Ryan also mentions that for him, the “pacing is very slow for a supposed ‘comedy’ film”. I would perhaps suggest trying to approach the film not as a comedy, but as a tragedy that is given a comic take. For me, despite its comic exterior, Kurosawa’s version on The Lower Depths is still very much a tragedy at its core. But then again, we clearly look at the film quite differently, for I personally feel quite close to the characters in the film, and don’t feel the distance that you experience.

I would in any case argue against the idea that The Lower Depths lacks any moral message or vision, as Ryan suggests. Earlier in this thread, Coco asked “if the misery is self-inflicted and the cause of their poverty and low social status, or if it is the result of poverty and low social status”. To be honest, I took this to be a rhetorical question, since for me the answer would seem quite clear: the poverty is to a large extent self-inflicted (just see how they spend the little money they have on booze), although the characters themselves don’t for the most part seem ready to admit it. And perhaps there is a reason for that, for the only one who actually does admit it ends up hanging himself. But do nevertheless note that these are not people of very low social status, for we have amongst them a (supposed) former nobleman, a former actor, and a few craftsmen, while both the thief and the gambler obviously have the brains to make a better living. Also, I would have thought that Osen (the prostitute) would not, with that face and body, need to live like she does now, no matter how delusional she may be. The thing is, just about everyone seems to have the means to climb out of the pit, but for one reason or another, they just don’t.

I am also wondering whether we might want to consider The Lower Depths as one of Kurosawa’s post-war films, and see the film’s characters as representing the late 1950s Japanese society. With its actions in the war, Japan dug its own pit and caused its own descent into the “lower depths” — first morally, and towards the end of the war and especially after Hiroshima and Nagasaki were bombed, very much also materially. I am not an expert in Japan’s economic history, but it is my understanding that in 1957, when The Lower Depths came out, Japan’s economy was still struggling, trying to find a stable way out of inflation, unemployment and wartime debts. And perhaps even more importantly, there was little admission that these problems were largely self-inflicted, just like even today Japan seems to have trouble admitting its part in the Second World War. I won’t go further into this topic here partly because I don’t really have the knowledge to dig much deeper, but mainly because I think that it would deserve a thread of its own. The reason why I brought this to the table now is that, unlike Ryan, I feel that there is actually quite a lot going on in The Lower Depths in terms of moral message or vision.

Finally, since I started this post by discussing adaptations, let me finish by mentioning that I would also argue, as have a number others before me, that The Lower Depths is (among other things) a conscious experiment in creating a filmed stage play, as opposed to just a film adaptation of one. Things like the way space and camera are used, or how the actors rehearsed for the film all seem to point at this. I personally think that it is an interesting experiment, and something that wasn’t really done before and hasn’t quite been pulled off since (most “filmed plays” that I have seen have been quite poorly put together).

In connection with a conscious effort to bring the stage onto the big screen, there is actually a curious difference that I have noticed between Gorky’s original and Kurosawa’s version, which is that while Kurosawa’s characters repeatedly make references to stage conventions (they for instance speak of their “exits”, or of “the curtain falling” when a matter is resolved, or it being “curtains for someone” when they go to sleep or when something is about to end), this doesn’t seem to appear at all in Gorky. It could of course be just a matter of translation, as I cannot be certain how faithful the Criterion subtitles are, but what I do know though is that neither the original Gorky or the English translation seem to mention curtains — then again, my Russian is also lacking.



You make some interesting points Vili, and as always with Kurosawa, I’m certainly partial to give him second, third, fourth, fifth and even more chances! But as you highlight, my main issue is indeed the fact that the film is very theatrical and so therefore not suited to the cinema.

Contrary to Richie, however, I think The Idiot is an excellent film (taking into account the damage the studio did to it) and in its original cut, I believe it could have been one of the finest Kurosawa films ever made. Perhaps a controversial opinion, and definitely an uncommon one, but nonetheless, and again contrary to Richie, I think the performances in the film are fine, especially Setsuko Hara’s, which, if I remember rightly, Richie strongly criticised as being hammy and over the top. I actually believe The Idiot to be a fine example of a film adaptation from a novel source. I also do not find it theatrical, as it lacks minimalism, various sets are used, several film techniques are used (primarily expositions and the like) and a whole load of Kurosawa’s standard techniques and style is thrown in there (i.e. use of weather and character idiosyncrasies).


Jeremy Quintanilla

I’m a bit in the middle ground of Ryan and Vili, although I fully agree with Vili’s statement to Coco’s self-inflicted, or result question.

To perhaps aid a bit in Ryan finding the point to the film, I think we have no choice but to like many Kurosawa look first at Postwar Japan’s state.
We might claim Japan as the “lower depths”, and then if we should too consider substituting the former nobleman, a former actor, and a few craftsmen, etc as former industrial prides or prestigious of Japan.
To which case we are speaking largely of Tokyo, and Yokohama.

Most think of Hiroshima, and Nagasaki in regards to Japan and WWII, but they weren’t very important cities, nor was their destruction spectacular bad(ignoring the speed and length of human suffrage. Also those towns were picked because of being undamaged up to that point in the war, and thus the best place to see what the bombs could do, also Nagasaki was a secondary objective, the primary target could not be reached during the 2nd bomb flight).

It’s Tokyo that was the economic and war heart of Japan, with Yokohama being the veins of sort. It is often forgotten, but it was Tokyo that was the most destroyed, most felted, most painful part of the war. The entire city was burned to the ground by American fire bombings, and too Tokyo trampled the deaths of both Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Unlike the quick destruction of what the atom bombs brought, Tokyo destruction was slow, violent, and seemingly endless. It too happened from outside Japan(America) and from within Japan(their “to the death” militarism). Yokohama’s vital ports were crippled too in the process, but we’ll start to track off a bit. .

The point being, if we’re too to follow Vili’s statement that the character’s poverty is largely self inflicted and it was Japan that dug it’s own pit. I think what we really have here is the character representing what Japan was, and still could of been. Instead Japan sunk itself into problems before the war’s out break, then much like the movie’s character further deepened their hole, by unwise moves, as wastefulness of their little money, represented by the characters as Vili points out, spend their little, and often borrowed money on booze. Or wasting and ignoring opportunities that resources, and beauty can give, such as that of Osen. To whom seems to mope around and allows herself to never realize the ease to which her situation can be changed.

I’m really ruining what I had planed to write up, but I just continue the connection just a bit-and do keep in mind this is the quick and simple:
Japan for the most part had a lot going for it, but Japan felt their small island, and at the time small scale global trade ensured they would never be anything great. So Japan sort of mope around; when Germany started it’s campaign, Japan got excited thinking it found the answers to their greatness, to prove their concept as being superior-much in the same sense as Nazi Germany. So, Japan, squandered their little money, their small, but strong and growing industry on the quick fix. The gamble of course didn’t go so well, and so like the former noble, actor, craftsmen, Japan fell down. But Japan for a great time during the war had the chance to get out of their hole, but they didn’t, they continued to waste what they had, and deepened their moping. This continued, really up to their metaphorical death, when America, practically destroyed everything they ever had.

It wasn’t until then, the old, “be thankful for what you have” kicked in, and although with a bit of roughness, Japan focused at what they had, and what they were. Thus leading to what they are today-the 2nd most powerful economy.

Mind you this is a very simplified explanation and connection to the movie.



Interesting stuff as ever Jeremy!


Vili Maunula

Very interesting stuff, Jeremy! I for one would be very interested in reading more about all this, if you feel like taking the topic further.

Ryan, I think that it is a testament to Kurosawa’s versatility and depth as an artist that we can have fairly differing opinions and interpretations of his works. I can certainly see where you are coming from when preferring The Idiot over The Lower Depths, even if I personally don’t really share the view.


Jeremy Quintanilla

I at least have some plans to elaborate more formality on the topic. Especially the parts where you have to take into account Kurosawa adapted from a Russian play, so to find the fittings for post war Japan, you most find the similar fittings of 1900’s Russia. And while from different circumstances, the paths and end result for Russia, mirrors closely enough to Japan where Kurosawa had no need to venture off from the play. It to me appears to all merge very nicely. The class separations of and personal aspects of Russians, it not much different then the what happens to the Japanese.

Yeah, Ryan, always stick to your guns. You don’t like it, you don’t like it. I mean if Vili can get off dissing Seven Samurai, I think we can let a diss to Lower Depths slide. 😛 Although I did call for Vili’s ban, and really think we should push for it 👿



It may seem an extension to draw this discussion into criticism of criticism, but it seems to be worth restating that Richie cannot have it both ways.

“Too Literal” cannot be a criticism” if it holds for “The Lower Depths” as well. One has to come up with something more substantive as Ryan did, and explain. I wish that Richie had stated, “The Idiot” did not use filmic techniques to successfully forward the story and illuminate the characters.” Or “stays too close to the source material”. Or something of that sort. But, Vili, hearsay is not allowable in this court of criticism-we can all “guess” at what Richie means, but Richie’s native language is English, and he can be held to his statements. Which, in this case, are regrettable.

If really “The Idiot” were too literal, it would literally be a masterpiece, as the book is-and, matter of fact, I also love it, Ryan! I think “The Idiot” is disjunctured, fractured, and maimed-and somehow, since the main character is, also-it works for me!

Finally, a film cannot be too literal. It is a film. A film is not a book. It is very very far removed from a book, and must go through inuumerable processes to find physical representation! That’s why this statement is so grating-it so disrespectful of the immense effort Kurosawa put into the film! It is allright if Richie doesn’t like it. It’s just unbelievable though, that he gets a “pass” at making such a thoughtless, disrespectful remark. It shows that he doesn’t really understand the artistic process.

Now, looking at the play that is the basis for “The Lower Depths” we can see how Ryan can say it is suitable for the theatre. Ryan is n solid ground! And, Kurosawa does a very minimal set-thing. Anybody see the Criterion “extras” with Murakami discussing the building of the sets, and the plan for the shooting? I believe it was an exercise in ensemble acting-and, for me, a successful one. I have the boxed set with the Renoir version of the same film-and, yet, have never bothered to look at it! And, I like Renoir! I just doubt that anything could be as satisfying as the Kurosawa version.
If anyone has seen the Renoir version, though, I would like to hear what you thought about it, in comparison. It would be so interesting for someone to do a blow-by-blow!
Ryan, good luck in school this semeseter! I know how you feel…very busy workload here, too!



Sorry I was off net for awhile, hoping my usual computer with everything, including this site, bookmarked would be up and running at full strength by now, but it’s not.

The Lower Depths is my favorite of the Kurosawa films not usually found on the “masterpiece” list and is ahead of at least one of those (you probably all remember my dislike for Rashomon). I will admit, it’s slow-moving and the first time I watched it the first act dragged, but once I got past that into the second act and realized how the two acts fit together, I really loved it. What probably converted me is the rap that more or less opens Act Two, echoed by the one that nearly ends the film.

Some of the things I love about it are the very same things Ryan dislikes, like the closed, claustrophobic nature of the setting, the fact that they used one set, that they rehearsed for a month in costume before filming, that each act is separated by the clapper, the very slice-of-life stream of consciousness nature of the writing. The acting is just superb, although for me Mifune is slightly miscast; this isn’t his best role. I forget exactly why; I think, though, that in this context his charisma didn’t come through. And Fujiwara and Hidari are excellent; I think Fujiwara excelled equally in several other movies, but despite my love for Seven Samurai, for me this is Hidari’s best Kurosawa role as someone both saintly and villainous.

I agree with Vili’s characterization of this as a tragedy with comedic overtones. They are all stewing in depths they could each probably get out of were it not for their habits and self-deceptions. In the case of the alcoholic actor, once he realizes what he’s put his faith in is hollow, he feels no option but to kill himself. It’s the announcement of that fact and the gambler’s bitter, cynical response that form the denouement, which I like for its shock value but which may unfold too quickly to take in given the previous pacing. 🙂

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