The third essay tracing the vagabond’s travels “beyond the boredom and bondage of village life” onto the screen closely examines the difference between a tramp and a bum by way of the Edo period. Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths is a tragedy drunk on dreams.
In 1957 Akira Kurosawa filmed an adaptation of a Russian play- The Lower Depths. A romantic and dark movie had already been made and set by Jean Renoir in post-war France 21 years earlier. Kurosawa’s version, set in the floating world, is bleaker- much bleaker. Part one of this series was written about Modern Times and established the vagabond as the outsider from society, not for what they do, but who they are- the impoverished. But freedom from a corrupt system has led some tramps down the path to enlightenment. The second installment covered Renoir’s Les Bas-Fonds and dug a little deeper into the parallel between the tramp and Dionysus. Both figures embody the bearer of truth, both of their conditions a lesson in balance and excess. In Renoir’s version, Pépel the thief represents the tramp-as-sage and the bankrupt Baron plays the student. In Donzoko, nobody in the flophouse needs a lesson in poverty, so conflict comes from the vagabond’s Dionysian inner struggle: the consequence of dreaming.
Donzoko is the dark mirror of Les Bas-Fonds. Everything good has come too late to the flophouse. The hope is all dried up and the vagabonds have their wise wanderer status compromised, instead of moving on their inertia has chained them to society. By paying rent, they are playing the landlord’s evil game and becoming complicitly part landlord. How much is too much? Each “classic destitute wanderer type” wrestles with this dilemma. Kurosawa’s lower depths are a way station for vagabonds lost in their dreams, darker dreams that reflect the bottomless well of cruelty reality is capable of drawing from rather than Renoir’s optimism. The real world cuts far deeper than fiction and Kurosawa goes to great pains to make the film ring true.
The style in which it is rendered is superb. In many ways, it is theater done on location and it brings an authentic essence to the movie. The flophouse is just one big room, a bare stage without symphony, the constant scraping of rust by the tinker and his wife coughing herself to death serving as the score. Donzoko steps away from being a picture of a play by using the camera- it isn’t fixed the way your seat in the amphitheater would be, though there are plenty of shots with the actors’ backs to the audience. Kurosawa uses dynamic motion and framing to match the emotional aesthetics of the source material, pairing dramatic moments with the right kind of visual atmosphere. He will get close in on someone’s face to put you in their head but he will also trust that you are in the scene and not watching and give the big stuff the space and time to breathe. Having the actor face away or having three or four of them in a single shot, sitting in silence makes the real stuff more real, which empowers the writer’s magic spell that lets you be there watching something and be totally lost in what you are watching at the same time. Great films use the medium to command your focus and Kurosawa controls what you see with grace.
It is a movie of a million dreams. The drunk’s dream, his excuse that he is sick allows him to indulge his weakness instead of fight his was back to the stage. The gambler shares in his excuse- “If work made life easy, he’d do it. Us, too. But that’s hardly the way of the world.” That’s the tinker’s dream, that everything naturally works itself out in the end and head-down perseverance will get you to that point. But that can become an empty excuse to only look out for oneself because everyone else will be taken care of in time. The tinker is screwed because, well first, that’s terrible, but second the game he’s playing is rigged. He plans to get out, but there’s no out for him to get. The vagabond can never be a part of society because society requires someone to be the chaff so they can be the wheat. Failure pervades, and why bother? is the inscription over the portal to the lower depths. Right on to the tinker for rejecting that as a philosophy but the tragedy is the thing he was bothering over is designed to crush him instead of elevate him. Even the escapist is lost, lost in dreams, she never moves on because she’s never there to begin with.
The Lower Depths is about a change brought about by a stranger’s arrival. The pilgrim is Donzoko’s catalyst. The pilgrim is strongly, strongly inferred to be the floating world exile, the super ninja in retirement, the ex-bagman. By his own admission the pebble worn smooth by time beside the river. His contributions shine brighter than the windbag in the Renoir version because the horrible is so much more horrible in Kurosawa’s setting. But it cannot be denied his other title is the villain. I know this is in reference to his past, or is it? The pilgrim’s brightness in this version perhaps only stands out in contrast to how soiled everyone else is. The thief is kind of a shit and I pity the landlord a little bit, you get the sense that everyone, even the constable, is very very poor. The lingering division between them and us so boldly drawn in Modern Times and desaturated in Les Bas-Fonds is totally washed out in Donzoko. Those living in the trash pit where the civilization dumps its junk pay the price for the rest of society to exist. Pillars need a broad base to stand upon or they crumble.
Realizing that the pilgrim in Les Bas-Fonds was also the windbag whose advice is ultimately empty really skewed my perception of him in Donzoko. The pilgrim’s counsel is a mixed bag and his constant soothing everyone without reason beyond making them happy frequently ends up being misguided in the long run. He trusts some people with harder truths but he does do a lot of just telling people what they want to hear and the actor’s fate is the ultimate example of the danger in that. The pilgrim being a kind of ex-gangster type places him in a Baron-like position where he is not a true vagabond, like Pépel, instead he has judged society from inside of it and chosen to go off the path. And, like the Baron, he falters along the way. Pépel’s message that anybody can be a hobo simply by trying to be a hobo makes the pilgrim pure vagabond, and Donzoko backs him up- the past is the past and everyone in the lower depths has been made equal. But if Little Tramp and Pépel have achieved enlightenment, the pilgrim is still struggling towards the light. His enthusiasm for advocating escapism as a means of moving on can be self defeating without actually moving on, letting go of everything creates the same stasis of giving in to why bother? The lesson of Dionysus the pilgrim is forgetting is you can’t let go of your responsibility to live your life. Some of your obligations matter, making something of what you have while you have it is why you’re here. The pilgrim reassures the tinker’s dying wife that letting go will release her suffering into the next world. “If there’s no suffering in that world, then I’ll put up with this world a little while longer.” She understands what the Little Tramp understands, that shitty life is still blessed because it is life and life’s potential is limitless. The flophouse of lost souls didn’t get there for lack of wisdom, plenty of pragmatic thinking is going on during all that starving and shivering. Being on the bottom forces wisdom upon you. I know I said everyone is stuck in a dream but a lack of dreaming is also everyone’s problem, and the pilgrim’s visit brings about change because his dreams are the kind that the are needed in the lower depths for folks trapped there to rise. The pilgrim’s most on-point message is get the fuck out of the flophouse. Follow your dream out of here. Thing is, you need both the wisdom to know your limitations and dreams to constantly test and extend those limitations. This is all the time you get and if you screw it up, Donzoko lets you know that the joke is on you.
The tinker ends up paying for his mistakes. He has given up on his wife, he allows her to die, allows himself to be apart from her and without his support, she fades. She gives him her food because she’s done for and he needs to live, and he eats it, condemning her to her fate. Both of them hoping magic will fix things in the end and lost when it doesn’t. Like I said, bleak. The tinker too late realizes what he has lost and sells his tools to pay for her funeral. He makes the wrong sacrifice and loses everything instead of persevering. Yet, losing all his stuff frees him. He was the outsider in the flophouse, he isolated himself trying to play the game and be better than someone else. When he loses his shit he lets go of his baseless elitism, goes full tramp and actually finds a little peace. Enlightenment eluded him when he was trying to reconcile the irreconcilable, his station (vagabond) with his desires (society). The tinker reborn reconciles his desire to achieve with what it is he is achieving. I qualified the pilgrim as the catalyst of change earlier, but he isn’t the sole factor that fractured the flophouse. The tinker, actor, evil sister, the thief, each play their part and those who evolve do so because of the total environment, good parts and bad. After the tinker sells his tools, he is stuck- got nothing but unable to allow the world to carry him. He has no choice but to persevere. The tramp can sing that tune, when there isn’t food, there’s crumbs.
The actor is the movie’s hard lesson. Acting is that thing, that being in the state of touching forever, the actor just goes there by being himself. Doesn’t need a guitar or a paintbrush or even an idea like a writer. Just by being themselves they are their ultimate selves. But Donzoko’s actor mistook the joy of the act of shamanism for hedonism and drinking is easier than acting so it eclipsed his stage persona and poisoned his bitol organs. Because you see him at his lowest, it is easy to judge the actor as a fool, but aren’t the lowest of us still capable of achieving our greatest heights? He may be lost but still is in there. You see the harrowing gravity of his decision behind his eyes right before he leaves the stage. He only gets one other chance to touch on realness, his talent, the truth. To an empty room, a secret victory only shared between him and us. Listen:
“The moon outshines the very bonfires where we roast our fish, hazy in the spring sky. The chill breeze intoxicates. Drifting contentedly, as a solitary wakeful crow wings its way home, along the riverbank dewdrops on an oar yield treasure. A hundred silver coins the unexpected boon. That’s the spirit. Verily, is it a spring night? Better the river than the Western sea. The fallen whore brings better fortune. Unlike a mound of pennies, the silver coins come wrapped in cloth. What good luck, so early in spring.”
I love the drunks’ chorus. And so does the actor, it is the only performance he is suited to give. Not only do they put the problem in the problem play, the tradition is interesting in the light of all these other bonds between tramps and spiritualism. The chorus- and many other parts, and the concept of a play on the whole- is shamanistic ritual, and shamanism is all about connecting yourself to the eternal spirit you are representing. The actor is the ideal job of the vagabond, the keys to the kingdom are given to the person who has no thing to rely on. Live forever by making yourself one with the hobo. Or waste the little time you get being played by the landlord.