A Movie Log

A blog formerly known as Bookishness

By Charles Matthews

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

The Lower Depths (Akira Kurosawa, 1959)

Bokuzen Hidari in The Lower Depths
Toshiro Mifune was to Akira Kurosawa as John Wayne was to John Ford: a charismatic leading man. But like Ford, Kurosawa had a kind of stock company of actors who regularly appeared in his films. Among them was Bokuzen Hidari, who was something like Kurosawa's equivalent of Ford's Hank Worden: a somewhat goofy-looking character player, usually employed as comic relief. Hidari appeared in nine of Kurosawa's films, but he had his most prominent role in The Lower Depths, Kurosawa's adaptation of Maxim Gorky's play about a collection of society's outcasts living in a decaying flophouse. As Kahei, an elderly pilgrim who seeks shelter with the group of drunks, prostitutes, thieves, and gamblers, Hidari becomes something of the conscience of the group, a grandfatherly presence who counsels hope and dispenses wisdom that is usually not heeded. It is a standout performance in a film that showcases brilliant acting on the part of the entire ensemble. Mifune has a key role, in which he demonstrates his usual hyperactive virility, but never overshadows the work of the company, which also includes Isuzu Yamada as the grasping landlady, Osugi, who has the hots for Mifune's Sutekichi; Ganjiro Nakamura as Rokubei, her jealous husband; and Kyoko Kagawa as Okayo, Osugi's sister, who is also attracted to Sutekichi. The Lower Depths betrays its theatrical origins in its confinement to a single set (with outlying areas), but Kurosawa's camera, under the supervision of cinematographer Kazuo Yamasaki, never makes the film feel static. It ranges from pathos -- the death of a consumptive woman -- to violence in the altercations among the various tenants to black comedy. A high-spirited musical moment at the end, in which some of the tenants improvise a song and dance, is interrupted by the news that the drunken actor (Kamatari Fujiwara) has killed himself, which leads to a bitter, memorable curtain line. Kurosawa's reputation has declined in recent years, partly from a perception that he catered more to Western tastes than his contemporaries Yasujiro Ozu and Kenji Mizoguchi, but The Lower Depths reveals him as a master in his direction of actors.

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