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The Lower Depths: Representation vs Presentation

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    Ugetsu

    I’d hoped to write up a more detailed posting on this topic, but time constraints the last few weeks have prevented me doing any reading up on this, so I’m really just throwing this out to see if anyone has any ideas. I think that this is the right time to maybe have a discussion to mark the sad passing of Donald Richie this month.

    Richie, as we know, despite the acclaim for his various books on Japanese film, wasn’t primarily known as a theorist. But one theory he did put forward (as I understand it anyway) was that one fundamental difference between ‘western’ and Japanese film relates to their origins – in the west, it was photographers who made the first films, in Japan, it was mainly theatre people. Hence there was an early emphasis on ‘realism’ or ‘representation’ in the West, while in Japan it was ‘presentational’, i.e. theatrical. This theory never seems to have become established – I can’t help noting that it was barely mentioned in the obituaries.

    But it seems highly relevant in a comparison of Kurosawa’s Lower Depths and Renoirs earlier work. Renoir clearly goes to great pains to ‘open out’ the play, to make it more cinematic, if not actually realistic (the confusion between the Russian names and settings and the clearly French settings and actors prevents I think a ‘realist’ interpretation). Kurosawa, on the other hand, embraced the theatricality of the work.

    With Kurosawa, we know, this is consistent with his work as a film maker. He loved both theatre and earlier more expressive forms of cinema, and this is reflected both in the number of theatre adaptions he made, and the stylings of many of his films, and his long time preference for a quite non-realistic acting style (in marked contrast of course to his contemporary Ozu).

    I’m not so familiar with all of Renoirs works. While he clearly had the eye of a painter, and many of his films have a non-realistic style, he worked firmly within a cinematic tradition, not a theatrical one.

    This throws up a number of interpretations, which I throw out to the floor. Is this distinction more than just the preference of two film makers – but rooted more deeply in the distinction between a Japanese and French film maker? Is one approach more artistically honest? Is the relative success of Kurosawa’s version (I think we all more or less agree that Kurosawa’s work is better) indicate that attempting to adapt plays to the cinema can never truly work unless the film maker acknowledges, rather than fights, the source?

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: Is this distinction more than just the preference of two film makers – but rooted more deeply in the distinction between a Japanese and French film maker?

    This is an interesting question. I think that in order to answer it we should look at contemporary directors both in France and Japan.

    You already noted that Ozu differed from Kurosawa in this matter, but it is difficult to say whether Ozu is a good representative sample. I am saying this partly because he was of an earlier film making generation than Kurosawa, and partly because of Ozu’s reported love of western cinema, which may not have been reflected in the content or the visual style of his films, but may well have influenced them in other ways.

    With Ozu set aside from the comparison, my expertise is fairly limited, and I think that you yourself would in fact be more qualified to take the inquiry forward. However, my gut feeling is that the works of directors like Mizoguchi, Naruse and Kinoshita reside more towards the “representation” end of the scale than Kurosawa’s, who differed not only from Renoir but also from his main contemporaries in this way (although again, Mizoguchi and Naruse really are of an earlier generation).

    And even when going further back to names like Yamanaka or Shimizu, I feel that Kurosawa continues to stick out as a director whose films are built on extremes. I think that the same can also be said if we compare Kurosawa to filmmakers who came after him. Kurosawa’s emotional amplifier simply went to 11, while others’ didn’t.

    However, I don’t think that this necessarily means that Kurosawa was an atypical Japanese film maker. If we look again at directors like Ozu, Mizoguchi, Naruse, Kinoshita or Oshima, I would definitely mark them more towards the “presentation” end of the scale than their European or American contemporaries.

    So, I would ultimately answer your question by saying that yes, it is more than just a personal difference between Kurosawa and Renoir, and has to do with national filmmaking traditions that they inherited, but that their personal preferences, and especially Kurosawa’s love of extremes, also had much to contribute to the (re)presentational differences between the two Lower Depths.

    Ugetsu: Is one approach more artistically honest?

    I don’t think so. Or at least I cannot really think in what objective terms one approach would be more honest than the other. Did you have something particular in mind?

    Ugetsu: Is the relative success of Kurosawa’s version (I think we all more or less agree that Kurosawa’s work is better) indicate that attempting to adapt plays to the cinema can never truly work unless the film maker acknowledges, rather than fights, the source?

    I wouldn’t really say so. Films like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, Amadeus, The Sound of Music, Frost/Nixon, Casablanca, Barefoot in the Park or Equus, to name a few off the top of my head, were all based on plays, yet I think work really well as films without (I feel) really trying to pay any special respect to their theatre origins. This is not to say that some of them don’t retain something theatre like — Barefoot in the Park in particular from the ones I listed.

    I must say though that apart from Equus and Casablanca, which I have seen fairly recently, I’m really working from long term memory here. And now that I check it, it seems that the Casablanca play was actually never performed before it was made into a film.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili:

    However, my gut feeling is that the works of directors like Mizoguchi, Naruse and Kinoshita reside more towards the “representation” end of the scale than Kurosawa’s, who differed not only from Renoir but also from his main contemporaries in this way (although again, Mizoguchi and Naruse really are of an earlier generation).

    I think its interesting in the context of Richies theory that Kurosawa is widely seen as the most ‘western’ of Japanese film makers, yet he most closely adheres to the notion of film as ‘presentation’, at least compared to those film makers you mention. But then again, with films like The Idiot, I think it can be argued that Kurosawa’s ‘presentationism’ owes as much to the aesthetics of the silent film as it does to theatre. From the limited number of pre-war Japanese films I’ve seen I think its pretty clear that they do owe a great deal to Japanese traditional film, especially chanbara films. But I think this tradition went off in a different direction, via Seijun Suzuki and on through exploitation film and manga, etc. I’m not really sure that Kurosawa can be put within that tradition, except in so far as his love was the more austere Noh tradition, not the campier kabuki, hence he ended up making Ran, rather than Female Convict Scorpion: Jailhouse 41 (in a way, I wish he had tried it!).

    I would agree with your comments about other theatrical adaptions. There is such a wide range of approaches, I think both versions of The Lower Depths fit within them, with Renoir’s version being fairly ‘typical’, in that he tried to make it more cinematic and representational, while Kurosawa’s work is a bit of an outlier. I think his Lower Depths can be seen as a very successful experiment (a bit like Throne of Blood and Ran), which perhaps were not so influential because they are very much sui generis.

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