Ed note: For the next several weeks, composer and film aficionado Lewis Saul has agreed to supply us with in-depth commentary about the films of Akira Kurosawa, now showing in an extended festival at the Film Forum. Even if you're unable to stop by the Forum, we think Lew's insights will deepen your appreciation of these important movies.
PLAYING on January 31st and February 1st at The Film Forum
This is Kurosawa's 17th film.
(The above link will take you to the Google Books 1922 edition ~ I love reading old editions.)
Criterion has done us a wonderful favor here: two really good films based on the Gorky play in one package! Although I don't intend to review the Renoir version here and now, let me state for the record that it's a pretty darn good film! Not as good as Kurosawa's version (imho) but a nice entry in the Renoir canon ...
So read the original (a very easy read!) and then compare both cinematic versions! Kurosawa's version is startlingly faithful to the original -- unlike his Shakespeare adaptations (Macbeth/Throne of Blood, Hamlet/The Bad Sleep Well and King Lear/Ran) very little is either added or removed from the 1902 play. (You may recall that in Hakuchi (The Idiot) , he tried to remain equally faithfully to the original Dostoyevsky, but was thwarted by the studio's insistence on making massive cuts to the film.)
The DVD packaging is quite clever; both the case and booklet are printed so that you have to turn the whole thing upside-down to read the other version! (Buy it, you'll see!)
There are two things about this film that have always fascinated me: one, that it is such a perfect ensemble piece -- there is no star, no character who is more important than another. Secondly, that it is so much fun to watch this film!!
This is a film about a bunch of really really really poor people who live in a really shitty little house together (90% of the film takes place in one room!) and bitch and fight with one another and they sing and dance and die. The End.
Kurosawa: "I would argue that this film isn't all gloomy. It is very funny and I remember laughing over it. That is because we are shown people who really want to live and we are shown them -- I think -- humorously. People are just supposed to relax and enjoy this picture as they would any programmer" (Galbraith, p. 245).
Special Edition Double-Disc Set Features
(Les Bas-fonds) Jean Renoir 1936
1936 • 89 minutes • Black & White • Monaural • In French with optional English subtitles •1:33:1 aspect ratio
- New digital transfer, with restored image and sound
- Introduction to the film by Jean Renoir
- New and improved English subtitle translation
- Optimal image quality: RSDL dual-layer edition
- Plus: a new essay by film scholar Alexander Sesonske, author of Jean Renoir: The French Films 1924-1939
1957 • 125 minutes • Black & White • Monaural • In Japanese with optional English subtitles • 1:33:1 aspect ratio
- New high-definition digital transfer, with restored image and sound
- Audio commentary featuring Japanese-film expert Donald Richie, author of A Hundred Years of Japanese Film
- A 33-minute documentary on The Lower Depths from the series Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create, including interviews with Kurosawa, actress Kyoko Kagawa, art director Yoshiro Muraki, and others
- Cast biographies by Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior's Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa
- New and improved English subtitle translation by world-renowned translator of Japanese films Linda Hoaglund
- Optimal image quality: RSDL dual-layer edition
- Plus: a new essay by authors Keiko McDonald (From Book to Screen: Modern Japanese Literature in Films) and Thomas Rimer (A Reader's Guide to Japanese Literature)
McDonald and Rimer provide valuable information about this film, including several details I had never known before:
- The initial shot is a 360º slow pan around the "upper" (as opposed to "lower") region of our location. Without McDonald and Rimer, I neverI would have known that:
- the first structure is part of a small hilltop temple adorned with trees.
- the next building (seemingly attached to a stone wall which leads down to the "depths") is identified as "an imposing warehouse of the kind used by wealthy merchants").
- When the pan reaches the 360º point, we see "a pair of Buddhist acolytes" dumping dead leaves down into the "depths."
- The temple gong sounds. "The people below cannot hear it, but we are meant to, and know that it summons the monks to their 'higher' calling" [DVD booklet].
- The set looks threadbare (as it should) and both interior and exterior views show what looks like a cheap, hastily thrown together set. In addition, Kurosawa's famous multiple-camera technique is less obvious than ever. (Hidden cameras face each other at times ~ you'll never see them!) Check out Flavia Wharton, writing for Films and Filming in 1962:
- "This film was produced by the Toho Co. on the cheap. I don't think there are more than half a dozen camera set-ups, and the sets are among the most inexpensive in movie history. . . . Some of the hopeless inertia and instinctual folly of Gorky's characters comes over, but it does so in inexcusably static cinema" [Galbraith, p. 246]. I say HA, and -- HA again ...
- For many many years I wondered about the incredible -- seemingly improvisational -- singing that the characters do at two different points in the film (the second time is the final scene). It seemed so close to 20th century scat singing that I truly thought Kurosawa was just lazily mixing time periods. Not so -- of course!
- It is called bakabayashi -- literally, "'fools' orchestra," a Shinto shrine festivity. Essentially just musical babbling (scat!), the singers occasionally throw in lyrics about the "avarice and hypocrisy of the Buddhist monks. They sing in sarcastic praise of all the salvation money can buy" (booklet).
- I love this film for its plotlessness. Nothing much happens. And it is a thrilling film!
- The Japanese role/(actor)|films with AK|/[Russian role]:
- The ex-samurai (Minoru Chiaki)|10|[The Baron]
- Otaki, the candy-seller (Nijiko Kiyokawa)|1| [Kvashnya -- a vendor of meat-pies]
- Tatsu (Haruo Tanaka)|3| [Bubnoff -- a cap-maker]
- Yoshisaburo, the gambler (Kôji Mitsui)|7| [Satine]
- Tomekichi, the tinker (Eijirô Tôno)|7| [Mitritch Kleshtch -- a locksmith]
- Osen, the prostitute (Akemi Negishi)|4| [Nastya -- a street-walker]
- Asa, Tomekichi's wife (Eiko Miyoshi)|8| [Anna -- Kleshtch's wife]
- The actor, Danjuro (Kamatari Fujiwara)|12| [The actor]
- The thief (Toshirô Mifune)|16| [Vaska Pepel]
- Osugi, the landlady (Isuzu Yamada)|3| [Vassilisa Karpovna, Kostilyoff's wife]
- Okayo, Osugi's sister (Kyôko Kagawa)|5| [Natasha, Vassilisa Karpovna's sister]
- Rokubei, the landlord (Ganjiro Nakamura)|1| [Mikhail Ivanoff Kostilyoff]
- Kahei, the priest (Bokuzen Hidari)|7| [Luka -- a pilgram]
- Kuna (Atsushi Watanabe)|8| [Krivoy Zob]
- Shimazo, the police agent (Kichijirô Ueda)|7| [Miedviedieff -- Natasha's uncle, a policeman]
- Unokichi (Yû Fujiki)|3| [Alyoshka -- a shoemaker]
- Tsugaru (Fujitayama)|1| [The Tartar]
I am not 100% certain about the Russian equivalents for #3, #14, #16, and #17...Just to give you an idea of Kurosawa's respect for the original material, here is a transcription of the opening scene in both versions:
THE BARON: And then?
KVASHNYA: No, my dear, said I, keep away from me with such proposals. I've been through it all, you see -- and not for a hundred baked lobsters would I marry again!
BUBNOFF [to Satine] What are you grunting about? [Satine keeps on grunting]
KVASHNYA: Why should, said I, a free woman, my own mistress, enter my name into somebody else's passport and sell myself into slavery -- no! Why -- I wouldn't marry a man even if he were an American prince!
KLESHTCH: You lie!
KLESHTCH: You lie! You're going to marry Abramka. . . .
THE EX-SAMURAI: Yeah, and so?
OTAKI: Like I said, I've had it with the housewife business.
TATSU [to Yoshisaburo]: What are you moaning about? [Yoshisaburo keeps moaning]
OTAKI: It's ridiculous. Even if his family was stinking rich, I'd never ...
TOMEKICHI: You're a liar!
TOMEKICHI: I said you're a liar. Aren't you getting hitched to Deputy Shimazo? . . .
- I would have given Bozuken Hidari a medal of some kind for his performance in this film (which is bigger than all his previous Kurosawa roles put together!) ... and by the way, in case you missed it in my Seven Samurai post: this really will make you laugh:
- The two scenes of bakabayashi are at 0:38:44 and 2:01:36. The latter is one of the coolest things I have ever seen in cinema!
- There are no wipes in this film.