Donzoko (1957)

Donzoko (aka The Lower Depths)donzoko poster
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Akira Kurosawa and Hideo Oguni from a play by Maxim Gorky
1957/Japan
Toho Company
Repeat viewing/Netflix rental

Everybody lives for something better to come. That’s why we want to be considerate of every man— Who knows what’s in him, why he was born and what he can do? Maxim Gorky, The Lower Depths

Kurosawa turns Gorky’s tragedy about illusion among the dregs of society into a comedy and produces his best ensemble piece since Seven Samurai.

When people in late 19th-century Japan hit rock bottom, they might have landed in a lodging like the one in this film.  It is basically a flop house where an assortment of the poor share a single room and sleep on the floor.  The owners are grasping and conniving, one rung up the ladder from their pitiful guests .  Landlady Osugi (Isuzu Yamada) runs a tight ship while keeping her eye on her beloved Sutekichi (Toshiro Mifune), a thief.  Sutekichi, however, has tired of her and has his eye on her sister Okayo, whom the landlords treat as little better than a slave.  Other tenants include an alcoholic actor, a tinker and his dying wife, a prostitute, a gambler, a self-styled ex-samurai and their ilk.  All nurture some kind of illusion about a more noble past and dream of a better life, or after life as the case may be.

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The tenants all see the lies told by the others but not their own.  Into their midst, comes a Buddhist priest (Bokuzen Hidari, Yohei in Seven Samurai) who sees the comfort provided by the lies and dreams and encourages his fellows to hold on to them.  Meanwhile, there is a raging lovers triangle between the thief and the two sisters that constantly threatens violence.

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Mifune and Yamada get top billing but do not have parts much bigger than any of the others.  If there is a central character who ties the piece together, it is the priest.  The action is confined basically to one set but Kurosawa makes the film richly cinematic with his moving camera and masterful editing.  The dialogue is pretty wonderful and the theme is thought-provoking.  Highly recommended.

I reviewed Jean Renoir’s 1936 version of the same play here.

Bizarre clip montage set to “music” – the actual little song and dance the card players do in the movie is one of its highlights

4 thoughts on “Donzoko (1957)

      • I liked it a lot! Great movie! But I expect no less from Kurosawa. I probably shouldn’t have started it so late because I got about halfway through it and my mind was wandering, so I had to finish it this afternoon.
        But I would love to see this on a big screen with a bunch of drunken Kurosawa fans!
        Such great writing! And fun performances from a lot of Toho actors! I loved it when one of the characters said “Onibaba” and it was translated as “Demon bitch!”
        So that’s what that means! And, yes, the landlady was wonderfully terrible!
        The “musical number” at the end was great too! Minutes after deleting “Donzoko,” I was wishing I’d kept it to watch that scene a few more times.

        • I was wondering how long it took the actor’s to get that “performance” down pat. It all seemed timed to the split second. I think it’s the kind of movie that benefits from rewatching and a bit of sake myself!

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