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aka - Donzoko
Japan 1957
Directed by
Akira Kurosawa
125 minutes
Rated M


3 stars

The Lower Depths

Kurosawa's filmic adaptation of Gorky's The Lower Depths keeps close to its theatrical origins, being largely set in a single room with only a few exterior sequences and despite the transposition to Edo-era Japan keeping close to the action and dialogue of the original play. As a theatrical piece with its four-act structure this tragi-comedy about a group of destitutes, with its tight ensemble cast, works well but in the absence of real actors in real space, cinematically it is far less beguiling, .

Kurosawa regularly featured the poor and outcast in his films, whether in contemporary dramas such as Drunken Angel (1948) or Red Beard (1965) or in his samurai films where they often provided an absurdist counterpoint to the main action. Here it is as if the latter group are elevated to a film in themselves. However their largely plotless interaction and the lack of narrative contrast gives The Lower Depths a monotony that is not disguised by Kurosawa's constantly shifting camera, whilst the evident theatricality, emphasized, with the exception of Toshiro Mifune, by the actors' heavily-stylized make-up removes the content too far from social realism to engage our sympathies. If anything does work in the film it is precisely the comedic aspect, the lampooning of the pretensions of those at the bottom of the social heap who by necessity must deny their lowly lot and therefore condemn themselves to it. Although the filming of Gorky's play was a project Kurosawa, a long-time fan of Russian literature (he also filmed an adaptation of Dostoevsky's The Idiot in 1951) cherished from his student days in the 1920s when he experienced experimental theatre productions inspired by Russian avant-gardists, Stanislavsky and Meyerhold, one cannot help but feel that the play has lost too much in its uprooting from the more socially-aware Russian tradition with its telling representations of the grinding poverty of the lower orders. This will be principally of interest to Kurosawa students rather than as a stand-alone feature for the general viewer. BH

DVD Extras: A useful selected commentary by Monash University academic Freda Freiberg and a stills gallery.

 

 

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