The Compassionate Kurosawa (The Lower Depths)

by Ezekiel Fry

The Lower Depths is somewhat of a departure from Kurosawa’s earlier adaptations and is certainly a dramatic shift from Throne of Blood, his previous adaptation of a play for the screen (done earlier the same year, 1957). Where Throne of Blood is a free, although structurally faithful, adaptation of Shakespeare’s Macbeth, The Lower Depths is to the letter in its representation of Gorky’s play. Throne of Blood is a play adapted into a film, and The Lower Depths is a play that is filmed using cinematic techniques. (This may be due merely to the substantial stage and set directions that Gorky includes, where Shakespeare is largely ambiguous.) Kurosawa even goes so far as to retain the original four acts and two sets that Gorky’s play uses. This technique further establishes for the audience that this is a play. This may be Kurosawa’s rendition, or styling, of Gorky’s work, but it is still very much indebted to the playwright. The film does not break away from the source material in the way that Rashomon and Throne of Blood have previously. This is not to say that The Lower Depths is a less original creation than the aforementioned films, but instead it shows yet another development in Kurosawa’s ever changing approach to creating cinema from literary works.
Kurosawa’s main set is a ramshackle tenement that lies within a large ravine, or pit. The location of the tenement is established in the opening sequence of the film which pans around the walls of the pit from below. By showing the view from below (and there will never be a true view from above) initially Kurosawa creates a feeling of imprisonment. It is almost as if the audience is looking up to the rim of the pit and cannot see a way out. From the very outset there is a sense of separation and claustrophobia. As the shot completes its pan the camera stops on two unknown characters that dump garbage into the pit and onto the roof of the building. They say it is merely a “rubbish heap” anyhow. This is the last time the building will be shown from this elevated perspective. The scene shifts to the interior of the “rubbish heap” that has just been symbolically showered with filth, and it becomes apparent that there are indeed people inhabiting the dilapidated building. This quick sequence of establishing shots illustrates the precarious and fallen nature of the building and anyone who may dwell within. It is unclear who is dumping the garbage on the roof, but they certainly do not look like aristocrats. This, coupled with its location in the pit, shows that the characters which are about to be introduced are the lowest of the low. They have fallen beneath poverty, into the literal pit of despair.
The scene shifts to the interior of the tenement which looks no better from the inside. The general feel is that of a large barn or stable, but instead of housing livestock this barn shelters humanity in many forms. The first shot inside the building has an almost voyeuristic quality to it. The audience is dumped into the middle of a conversation between the former samurai and the candy seller. The camera has crept into this hovel and arrives in the middle of life. The viewer is forced to catch up on the fly as each resident of the house is introduced. Kurosawa lays out his set so that the camera, or view, is in the foreground and the set spreads out from this central position. In this way there are only three walls of the tenement that will ever be visible. The “front” wall will never be seen. This is where the film is typically shot from, giving the whole production an intensely theatrical feel. The camera sits where the audience of the play would. The viewer sees the film very much as one would see it as a play. The action spreads out from the foreground and a row of cubbies which serve as beds to the right. Bubnov sits in the background against the far wall and the tinker sits in the foreground. Everything that happens in the tenement will happen within these boundaries, although the shot may shift to show the room from a different angle. It is in the shifting of the camera that Kurosawa is able to truly put his directorial mark on the proceedings. There are several times when this cinematic quality bursts through the softness of the stage play and creates amazingly powerful moments.
The first of these cinematic bursts comes at the end of act one. In Gorky’s play the scuffle between the sisters is heard and not seen. With the ability to shift scenes and sets at will Kurosawa shows the actual fight itself. Osugi (Isuzu Yamada!) chases Okayo out of the building and down a stone path set against the wall of the pit. Here again Kurosawa shows the upper world from the perspective of a pit dweller. The shot shows the two sisters struggling with one another from a low angle. The top of the cliff is visible and sunlight streams over from the edge, while the path itself is shrouded in shadows. The two women are briefly illuminated against this flash of sunlight but quickly sink back against the shadowy wall of the pit. It is at this point that Osugi is pulled away by her husband and she spits on her sister, all the while the distant sunlight is present. This amazing sequence erupts from the stillness of the first act (much in the same way that it would occur in a staging of the play) with ferocity and immediacy. There is even an out of control quality to the camera work. The women move through the frame frantically and the camera does its very best to follow them. They careen forward, often times coming so close to the camera that they are almost lost from view or completely obscured. In this way the camera mimics the viewer’s eye, startled into motion from the sedentary events that lead up to the fight, attempting to gather balance and bearing. Add to this the blurring aspect of the sunlight directly hitting the shot and the result is utter chaos. The explosion is punctuated by Osugi’s spitting, a visceral exclamation mark on the event. By placing the camera at such a low angle Kurosawa is able to show the contrast of the darkness of the pit and the light of the outside world. The inhabitants of the depths can see the light of fellowship, but are trapped in the shadows of their own horrific deeds. The first real view of the sun is seen through two violent shapes. Where there would be warmth and hope there is despair and rage. Everything is thrown on its head and the result is an extremely powerful and jarring sequence that subtly shows that this is in fact a Kurosawa, not a Gorky. Amazing. [36:30]
The second example of this standout cinematic artistry within the film occurs when Rokubei walks in on Sutekichi and Osugi conversing alone. These two former lovers have been in deep conversation and the entrance of Osugi’s husband bursts their insular bubble. His entrance itself is unnerving as he is more discovered than actually enters of his own accord. The shot of him leering in the tattered window is particularly disturbing. Events progress quickly and end with the pilgrim stopping Sutekichi from strangling Rokubei. Prior to the choking incident Osugi rushes out of the building and leaves Rokubei and Sutekichi standing next to one another. The initial shot of the two shows them up-close, from the waist up, and then dramatically cuts out to show their full bodies standing in tension, side by side. Kurosawa lingers on this still shot for more than several moments, pitting the wills of each man against one another. Out of this momentary pause comes the violent attack from Sutekichi. This outburst is in the same vain as the eruption of the sisters’ fight earlier on, but there is a more brooding tone here. Showing these two men next to one another is a foreshadowing of the murder which will occur at the end of act three. Kurosawa carefully paces this sequence with quiet (the conversation), outburst (the entrance), quiet (the “stand-off”), and outburst (the choking) giving the viewer little time to recover before hurling a powerful interaction outwards full force. [102:40]
In this way, amongst others, Kurosawa subtly displays his art as a film director while allowing the play to exist in and of itself. The two things do not exist apart from one another, but are carefully melded into one piece of electric cinema that is unrelenting in its portrayal of the human condition. The final scene works in much the same way that these other scenes do, except in reverse. The scene moves from madness and revelry to quiet introspection, giving the viewer one final unsuspecting jolt. Truly, Kurosawa was the director who was made to adapt Gorky, he seems to understand the playwright’s pacing so very well, and use the pre-existing material to craft a work of tremendous gravity.