We kick off our AK film club‘s new year by discussing Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths (Donzoko, どん底), which was released in 1957 and written in collaboration with Kurosawa’s regular writing partner Hideo Oguni.
An adaption of Maxim Gorky’s play of the same name, The Lower Depths was the second Kurosawa film in a row to be based on a well-known western play. It is interesting to compare Kurosawa’s handling of his source material here to what he did with his previous film Throne of Blood, based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. While in both films Kurosawa transports the action into feudal Japan, and while both films also stylistically explore the relationship between theatre and cinema, the end results are nevertheless fairly different.
Whereas The Throne of Blood is fairly abstract and almost dream-like, The Lower Depths represents an almost direct counterpart as a fairly faithful adaptation of Gorky’s social realism. The two films differ also by the virtue of largely inheriting the narrative structures of their corresponding sources, with Throne of Blood fairly linear and plot driven, while The Lower Depths retains Gorky’s circular, almost plotless exploration of the human condition. What still unites the two films, however, is their overall tone, with both (as well as the preceding Record of a Living Being) being some of the darkest and most pessimistic films that Kurosawa ever worked on. Although it must be said that all three films, and The Lower Depths in particular, include also lighter material.
Despite having been released at a time when Kurosawa was at the height of his powers, and even though it followed his arguably most discussed film, The Lower Depths has remained one of Kurosawa’s lesser known works. This of course does not mean that the film is somehow different from the rest of Kurosawa’s works. In fact, despite being a fairly direct adaptation of Gorky, the film has clear connections to such other Kurosawa works as Dodesukaden, The Idiot, One Wonderful Sunday and Rashomon. An additional connection can definitely also be drawn to Sadao Yamanaka’s Humanity and Paper Balloons, which we discussed back in July 2010.
Another cinematic link is of course with Jean Renoir’s earlier 1936 adaptation of The Lower Depths, which we will be discussing in February.
One way in which Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths is a little different from most of his other films is its casting. Lacking any true protagonist, the film is one of Kurosawa’s few true ensemble pieces where no actor occupies more screen space than another. While the cast features many familiar faces — for instance, Toshiro Mifune, Isuzu Yamada, Minoru Chiaki, Kichijiro Ueda, Eiko Miyoshi and Yo Fujiki all appeared in Throne of Blood — The Lower Depths marks the first Kurosawa film for Kyoko Kagawa, who would go on to appear in four other films for the director, and whom we have already seen in Yasujiro Ozu’s Tokyo Story and Kenji Mizoguchi’s Sansho the Bailiff.
For information about the home video availability of Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths, see the Kurosawa DVDs list. The Criterion edition is particularly recommended, as it includes also Renoir’s adaptation, which we will as mentioned be discussing in February. For the full film club schedule, head over to the film club page.