It's a challenging one. Based on the Maxim Gorky stage play, which was criticised by other Russians for being too pessimistic. Yikes. Kurosawa's staying faithful to Gorky, which makes his film much darker than, say, Jean Renoir's 1936 version. Renoir gave it a happy ending, for instance. Ahem. Kurosawa finds life and humour in the text, but it's gallows humour from characters who are almost all horrible and/or unlikeable.
On the upside, though, I suspect it might be cinema's most triumphant refutation of the modern Hollywood formula of Campbell, McKee et al. The "lower depths" means the lowest of the low. We're in a run-down 19th century Edo tenement, where the landlord's a bloodsucking toad and his tenants are drunkards, gamblers, prostitutes and thieves. Imagine a trap for all the rotting waste that falls through other nets. It's not just that they're desperately poor. They're not even functioning human beings. Everything they get, they either drink or gamble away. They don't even care about their own fates.
This makes the film's first act a bit of a struggle. I left thinking that this was going to be a movie about unpleasant people doing nothing for two hours. Look at the scene where someone realises they're being cheated in a game. "You should gamble honestly!" "Why?" The victim is stumped, as if this response is a philosophical masterstroke. That's the intellectual and moral level these people are working on.
Kurosawa also isn't hiding the fact that it's based on a stage play.
It soon gets more lively, though. The catalyst is Bokuzen Hidari, who shows up playing a pilgrim, Kahei, whom I suspected of being God or Buddha on Earth incognito. He's kind. He ministers to a dying woman who's being almost ignored by her husband, even though he's usually sitting only a few feet away. He listens sympathetically to their delusions and tries to make them change their lives, by giving them hope. "You can do anything. Just cut down on the drinking and turn over a new leaf."
Once, he even prevents a murder. This is necessary because of a poisonous love quadrangle involving a thief (Toshiro Mifune), the landlady (Isuzu Yamada), her husband (Ganjiro Nakamura) and her sister (Kyoko Kagawa). Yamada's banging Mifune and would be grateful if he'd murder her husband for her. Mifune though likes neither her nor her plan, which is understandable since she makes Cruella de Vil look cuddly and is fond of beating up her sister. (One assault involves a kettle of boiling water.) Probably wasn't a great idea for Mifune to have been having sex with Yamada, then.
In short, things start happening. People make decisions, some of them life-changing. There's death. There are hysterical accusations. People are dragged away and arrested. It's powerful stuff, especially with Hidari planting pernicious seeds of hope in these lowlifes and criminals. Lives will change, possibly for the better.
Then comes the final act... and the bizarre thing is that it's a mirror of the first. The people who were talking of getting out of here may or may not have done so, but the dregs still remain. A few more have also drifted in. There's a new landlady and she's an improvement on her predecessor, but that's not saying much. The film's dramatic focus isn't on the odd person here and there who might have been trying to escape the horrors of their lives, but on the unchanging lower depths themselves. A few faces are different. That's all. Of course the past two hours haven't been without effect on those who still remain, but it's still hard to imagine anything further from a Campbellian Hero's Journey.
It's the opposite of everything Hollywood defines as modern storytelling. "Relying on all he has learned throughout the story, the hero solves his problems, defeats the villains, and changes the world for the better"? Ahahaha, no. Many films break the rules through incompetence, of course, but what Akira Kurosawa is doing is faithfully adapting a great playwright's most famous work and making an uncomfortable classic.
The tension between Russia and Japan creates oddities. The two cultures have dark similarities, e.g. their fondness for suicide, but they're fundamentally opposites. Gorky's play has that Russian black cynicism, in which all authority figures are rotten and it's almost as if he's celebrating humiliation, despair and criminality. Japan's a million miles away from that. Japan's a consensus culture, built on social obligation and mutual respect. It's not without failures, obviously, but that's the engine it runs on. It works. To boil it down to a massive oversimplification, Russians survive on cynicism, whereas Japanese society is driven by everyone doing their social duty. Gorky's Russian sentiments are thus a peculiar fit for Japan, but Kurosawa had his reasons. To quote him... "In Edo during this period, the Shogunate was falling to pieces and thousands were living almost unendurable lives. I wanted to show this atmosphere, to reveal it."
It also has a theme of harsh truth vs. comforting lies. This was Gorky's theme too, but the Japanese relationship with truth is more complicated. That also comes through, I think.
It's a masterful production of the play. Kurosawa never lets it feel stagey, despite the fact that almost all of its two-hour running time takes place in the same dingy room. He also had a long rehearsal process, with forty days of everyone rehearsing on set, in costume. (The latter was deliberate, to make the clothes more worn.) After that, he shot the film mostly in sequence. The cast's full of Kurosawa regulars and the film's theirs, being an actors' ensemble piece in a way that almost never happens in cinema. They make it vivid and alive, even when nothing's happening. Their singing and dancing is mesmerising. They make it funny. They make extreme performance choices, then sell them. However they also make it raw and bleeding, e.g. the scene where Yamada offers herself to Mifune, but he rejects her.
As an aside, Kurosawa thought Renoir one of the greatest masters of cinema. Renoir eventually saw this film two decades after its release, then said, "That is a much more important film than mine."
This is a film of contradictions. It's lighter and more entertaining than you'd expect of its bleak subject matter, but equally it's pulling no punches. It's both very Russian and very Japanese. For a while it's pushing its audience away, but then it steps up a gear and sucks you in. It has some devastating dialogue. Exceeded my expectations in all kinds of ways.
"How can you go to hell if you're already there?"