An ensemble of entropy trapped in a hopeless existence, where laughter is the last recourse to retain their drunken sanity. Akira Kurosawa descends into poverty to depict a caste of homeless drunkards and thieves, down-on-their-luck actors and artisans who live in the gutter but still look towards the stars. All of these characters are trapped in this one-room dungeon, sacrificing free will for a bottle of sake or the ether of dreams.
Kurosawa establishes the environment in the first shot as trash is thrown into a pit, the camera looking towards the world above, and follows the trajectory onto the roof of a hovel lost amid the midden. Inside, a motley menagerie of misfits bicker and argue amongst themselves, each imbued with a desperate will to survive. A disgraced samurai, a thief, a prostitute, a craftsman, an actor all inhabit this lost world where even the landlords are involved in this conspiracy of self defeat. It’s not until Kahei descends into the flophouse like a fallen angel, his voice an inoculation to this ubiquitous disease, that the physical action begins. Each inmate is lost in drama, living on excuses for their predicament, Kahei’s words awaken hope and bring destruction for those who attempt to change: it’s not the result of action that is important…but the action itself. Kahei is dressed in white, stark contrast to the drab environment, and he is the only one free to leave. The others remain imprisoned by their past, afraid of the future, unable to live now.
Kurosawa films in long take with minimal editing, often utilizing close-ups and delicate camera movements that allow the actors to live and breath on such a tight soundstage. The full-frame compositions create a claustrophobic friction, as much of the story takes place in a single crowded room. The humor often overwhelms the desperation and seems more like a Billy Wilder film than a Kurosawa dramaturgy. After all, laughter is not only the best medicine, sometimes it’s the only medicine. Final Grade: (B-)