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The Lower Depths: Pilgrim or Villain?

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    We’ve noted Bokuzen Hidari’s incredible tour-de-force in The Lower Depths. Let’s hone in on his character, and try to interpret what he represents in the film. He is cast as a “pilgrim”, wandering through the film, but the denizens of the deep have their doubts about his ‘saintliness”. In a moment of crisis he exits. In his time in the “Lower Depths” he seems to encourage the self-deception of the denizens.

    Is it his characters’ depiction of the holy mountain that cures alcoholism and brings a character back to good health that is the ultimate undoing of the actor? Is it his suggestion that Mifune’s character and the landlady’s daughter make a good couple the couple’s undoing? His words of comfort to the dying wife of the tinker seem to be blessings-a kindness nobody else will show. Is that his single act untainted by a bad outcome?

    Whaddya think? Who is the pilgrim, what are his motivations, and what do you think the film is saying about him?



    I think he’s a genuinely kind old man who inspires the others and reawakens their dreams, but he has a certain naivete that keeps him from realizing just how much pain he’s setting them up for as reality crushes in. I think negativity frightens or repulses him, so he tries to brighten his environment, but then hurriedly packs up and bails as it collapses, a situation I could see playing itself out over and over again every time he settles down.

    So, while I can see the notion of him being a villain, who builds up false hopes that will inevitably be crushed, I don’t think it’s intentional on his part, making him just one more in a cast full of tragedies.


    Vili Maunula

    A very interesting question, Coco.

    It seems to be suggested that the old man indeed has something going on with the authorities, just like some of the characters already assume. When the final confrontation that ultimately leads to the landlord’s death is on its early stages, the gambler tells the old man to follow him to the scene: “Come, Gramps. We’ll all be witnesses.” (Criterion subtitles, around 1h 35min). The old man’s reply is “A witness? No way.”, after which he walks away, never to be seen again.

    Being in trouble with authorities doesn’t of course automatically make you a villain. In fact, I see the character like Noel does, as a well-meaning old fool who doesn’t quite realise what he is doing to the others.

    You could say that the old man advocates dreams, not reality. Perhaps the fact that whatever he touches in this manner dies (a cynic might even say that it is no coincidence that the tinker’s wife dies right after the old man has shown kindness to her), appealed to Kurosawa, who himself rather advocated looking directly at the problems and not running away from them by building made-up worlds.

    Yet, Kurosawa’s preferred solution is not present in the film. This more or less brings me back to Coco’s question: is the old man’s solution to the problems then any better than no solution at all?



    I see him as more conscious of what he’s doing than that. His apparent past brush with the authorities suggests to me that trouble has followed in his wake before. I don’t think he’s consciously malicious but it’s kind of like giving starving people an overabundance of rich food: it’ll taste good going down but in the end it’ll make them sick. But he believes too much in spreading hope, even if it’s false hope, or is too set in his ways to change. For me he becomes something of a sinister figure because disaster follows in his wake after he’s no longer there to do anything to deflect it.

    As for the tinker’s wife, although I think there’s a cause and effect there, it’s more because what he tells her allows her to let go and die peacefully rather than continuing to hold onto life in fear of what might befall her. Since she was clearly dying anyway and what he tells her isn’t likely to affect her fate, I see his speech to her as innocuous.

    While Kurosawa’s preferred solution might not be present, the movie suggests to me that it is better to make the best of a marginal existence, as the gambler does, than to live in a dream world that then comes crashing down around you.

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