I consider Kurosawa Akira (1910-1998) the greatest filmmaker ever. Of the 32 feature films he directed, there is only one that I actively dislike (Dodesukaden from 1970, sometimes billed as “Clickety Clack”). The other ones that I don’t like are the version of his adaptation of Dosteovesky’s The Idiot, which Kurosawa believed was destroyed by the studio (“Hakuchi”, 1951), and “Donzo” (1957) his adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play “Ne Dne” (The Lower Depths). One might infer from this that I don’t like Kurosawa doing Russian literary classics (I’m not sure that Vladimir Arsenyev’s Dersu Uzala qualifies as a literary classic, but not only is the book Russian, but so was Kurosawa’s film adaptation of it—which won a best foreign-language film for the then-USSR).
Rather than Russian sources being the problem, I think that Kurosawa’s cinematic exploration of the lumpen-proletariat were (1) unconvincing and (2) boring. Since the screenplay neither added to nor subtracted much from Gorky’s play and I also don’t like Jean Renoir’s 1936 adaptation of the play (as “Les Bas-fonds”), I blame Gorky more than Kurosawa (or Renoir).
Renoir transported the very Russian setting to France of the 1930s. Kurosawa transported it to some unspecified time late in the Edo era (the early 19th century, with the devolution of the Tokugawa Shogunate that included economic stagnation). The film is set-bound as no other Kurosawa film I’ve seen is. The closest the camera gets to escaping from the hovel where the characters live is the opening pan of nearly 360 degrees—which shows that the flophouse is next to a garbage dump (monks are shown dumping garbage directly on it). Three-fourths of the film is inside this flophouse, in which there is a central area and curtained-off individual spaces and in the courtyard between this dormitory and the landlord’s dwelling (into which the camera wanders briefly late in the film).
After that initial spin, the camera does not move much. There are few closeups—mostly mid-range shots of the down and out. I will not attempt to run through the set of stock figures (“characters”), only note that their poverty looks fake (do I mean “stylized”) to me. And none looks badly (or un-)fed. A particular yawner is the cliché of a prostitute with a “heart of gold” (played by Negishi Akemi [Red Beard]). And the drunken revelry rings very hollow to me, and, I think, to the denizens of the “lower depths.”
I don’t find their antics particularly funny, though Kurosawa considered Gorky’s play very funny. (Gorky himself considered he had written a protest play about desperately poor people; I am certain that he did not intend his play as a comedy, though I am less sure about Mother, his best-known novel, of which I saw a stage version with a comic Olympia Dukakis playing the title role.)
Probably because Mifune Toshirô was cast in it, the most interesting role (or performance) is his Sutekichi , a would-be yakusa, a petty thief with airs of being a serious gangster. Fujiwara Kamatari also manages to wring some pathos (and even an irony or two) out of his part as a failed actor.
There is a very melodramatic finale involving the landlord discovering Sutekichi’s long-running affair with his wife (Yamada Isuzu [the Lady Macbeth of “Throne of Blood”]), his wife discovering that Sutekichi is really in love with her younger sister (Kagawa Kyôko [Sansho, Madadayo]), etc., etc. To put it mildly, the finale of Kurosawa’s other 1947 adaptation of a play (Shakespeare’s “Macbeth” as “Throne of Blood”) is far more memorable. Indeed, the whole film is more memorable both visually and the performances (including Mifune’s).
I guess that Kurosawa wanted the viewer to experience claustrophobia, being trapped with the characters as they are with each other (though they do not seem to share the “Hell is [the] other people” of Sartre’s “No Exit”) and, indeed, seen to have sympathy and even solidarity with each other (for the most part). Kurosawa did not seem to find the one-note characters as irritating as I did. (But he did flatten them by filming with telephoto lenses, but he did that in other films, most notably in “Akahige” (Red Beard), a very long film that I love.
The Criterion edition includes more than half an hour from “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create” and, like “Rashômon,” has a commentary track laid down by Kurosawa expert Donald Richie. Richie is interested in themes, the documentary in technical matters of building and photographing on the single set. (Actually, I found this more interesting than the film itself). Criterion also paired the Renoir and Kurosawa adaptations of Gorky’s play (Jean Gabin played the part Mifune would.)
©2016, Stephen O. Murray