The Lower Depths (1957)


For his next film Kurosawa chose once again to translate material from the stage to the screen.

This time Kurosawa would choose something not from Shakespeare but from another Russian source, in the form of Maxim Gorky's play The Lower Depths.

Kurosawa's film of the same name is set in mid-19th century Edo (now Tokyo). Just as Kurosawa saw similarities between 16th century Japan and the world of Macbeth when he made Throne of Blood, he too saw similarities between Gorky's Russia in the early 1900s and his own country in the 1800s.

According to the film's opening titles, it was also an entry into the 1958 Cultural Festival.


The Lower Depths takes place in a small Japanese tenement in Edo, Japan. A myriad of colorful characters inhabit a small rundown shack owned by an ill-tempered landlord who lives next door in a much nicer home with his wife Oguni and her sister Okayo.

The characters who inhabit the shack range from an old actor and prostitute to a tinkerer and self-proclaimed former samurai. The most revered and respected among the group is a thief named Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune).

While Sutekichi has had an ongoing affair with Oguni, the landlord's wife, he has recently become enamored by Okayo, Oguni's sister.

Oguni sees this as her chance to be free of her husband. She tells Sutekichi that if he kills him, she will ensure that Okayo will be presented to Sutekichi "with a ribbon".

This subplot merely serves to propel the film along. The real story is in the other inhabitants of the shanty.

Their lives have become mundane. Some work with the hope of earning enough to leave, some merely sit and let the world do what it will to them. Some even die. But everything is shaken up when an old man arrives seeking a place to live for a while.

The man some call Grandpa begins to offer words of wisdom to those who will listen. He tells the actor of a temple where he can rid himself of his addiction to alcohol. He listens to the prostitute when she tells him about a man who sees her for who she really is. He even urges Sutekichi to take Okayo and start a new life somewhere.

In the end Sutekichi ends up accidentally killing the landlord while trying to protect Okayo. Okayo believes her sister and Sutekichi are in it together and has them both arrested.

While all this is happening the old man has flees (other characters hint that he himself is on the run from the law).

Life finally returns to normal for all the other inhabitants of the shanty, except one. The actor, after learning that the old man's words were merely lies to help ease his pain, hangs himself on a cliff near the town.


Because of The Lower Depths' simplistic setting and more character-driven plot, Kurosawa was able to more easily adapt his film making to come closer to the theater.

By utilizing the multiple cameras that he had been using since Seven Samurai, the actors could move about and perform with much more ease.

The film contains only two locations: inside the shack and just outside of it. The inside of the shanty itself feels like a stage. Characters come and go freely from off screen, the action continues without any cuts and the shots are often quite long compared even when compared to some of Kurosawa's other films.

There are only a few fades in the film that signal an elongated passage of time.

While Kurosawa clearly modeled the indoor location to look like a stage, he takes full use of the power of film in the outdoor location.

In almost every shot outside the shanty, characters are shot from a low angle. This could not be more important to the film.

The very first scene in the film is a 360-degree pan around the walls of the two houses. The camera finally settles on two children who are dumping trash into the pit.

"It's just an old rubbish heap," says one of the children. The world clearly does not care about these people and does not recognize their existence. During a time of peace (which this time period was) there are still those in "the lower depths" that are forgotten.

Throughout the film when characters are walking around the two houses, almost half the frame is taken up by the top of the pit and the sky.

These people are always looking up. There lies their way out, but although it is so close, it is still unattainable.

Every character in the film seems to be all too aware of their situation in life. While only the tinkerer believes that his work will one day earn him enough money to escape the shanty, even his hopes are slashed when he must pay for his wife's funeral.

"How can you go to hell if you're already there," one man says.
"Lay off the stupid dreams," says another.

While the characters in the film are keenly aware that money is the only way to get anywhere, some have negative attitudes toward education. The actor remarks that it is with one's own natural talent that they succeed in life.

Not even Sutekichi, who makes far more than any of the other men, is able to leave the squalor of the shanty.

Hope comes in the form of the old man. Dressed in a white kimono like a sort of guardian angel, the old man descends upon the inhabitants and begins to observe and interact with them. He sees the tinkerer's wife through her final days and gives advice to those who need it.

Sutekichi is on to the old man from the beginning, telling him he believes he is a fine liar.

Even when the old man does try to help those around him, many brush him off, seemingly content to live on drinking and living in their lower depths. Those who do listen only end up in jail or dead in the end. The old man, the others say, only lied to those who he felt were beyond hope.

One of the most integral aspects of characterization for Kurosawa seems to be in the backgrounds of characters. Far more than simply what they appear to be on the surface, Kurosawa gives his characters histories that contribute to who they are and how they act in the film.

The prostitute, destined to a life of prostitution, is seen daydreaming throughout the film. She imagines a man who sees her for who she is and doesn't care about her prostituting ways. She takes to the old man, and in the end almost does kill herself, but eventually does return.

The actor, who frequently tells those around him of his glory days on the stage, just as frequently forgets the songs he used to sing. He dreams of getting sober and returning to the stage, but tragically kills himself.

The former samurai tells the others of his family's high standing while serving the shogunate. His feeling of superiority translates into his bossiness towards others.

Each character has their dreams. Dreams that we can relate to even today.

It is through of characters like these that the film becomes easier to relate to, and the ending that much more tragic.

Kurosawa said that all of his movies deal with essentially the same question: Why can't people be happier? And why can't they be happier together"

The Lower Depths is certainly a case where Kurosawa is asking this question.

In the beginning it seems that everyone is at war with everyone else, despite their shared poverty. At the end of the film, however, they all share in the same drinking song.

Damn, damn it all
Let the heavens rain down coins
Money buys your fate in hell
Money buys you Buddha's mercy
This dimwit fool is broke

This song sums up all too well the theme of the movie. Kurosawa once again ends his film on a pessimistic note. He shows us that the world is not the happy place we would like it to be, and there are those like these people who live day in and day out without the hope of a happy life.