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The Lower Depths (1957) Review


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"If work made life easy, I'd do it." So says one of the residents of the flophouse that serves as the setting for Akira Kurosawa's 1957 adaptation of Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths. In fact, some of the residents here do work - there's a tinker who toils away fruitlessly and who ends up selling his tools to buy sake, for instance - but like all the others present, it seems there's little hope of an easy life for him. These others include a fallen samurai, the tinker's dying wife, an alcoholic actor, a prostitute, and, for the first long night of the film's action, a mysterious pilgrim who brings a humanist sensibility to these lower depths before departing the very next day.

Gorky's play was set in tsarist Russia a few years before the revolution, and Kurosawa finds a parallel for this desperate time in mid-19th century Edo (later renamed Tokyo), an era known to be one of great prosperity. This general prosperity is a cruel joke for his characters, remaining as out of reach as the temples that rise up on the rim of the crater-like valley in which the flophouse, piled against the valley wall, quietly goes about its business of deteriorating while the lives inside do the same. Is there hope of a better life? Another character has an answer for this: "People never do anything but repeat themselves."

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