Akira Kurosawa’s 1957 film The Lower Depths is set in Japan during the Edo Period (1603-1868), and is about the poor tenants of a rundown residence. In this featured scene we see three, and then four, men circle dance using traditional hand movements. From their simple “stage” to the faux flautist, these peasants are performing their own rustic version of Noh Mai, which is a form of Japanese dance theatre typically enacted to music made by hand held drums and flutes.
This scene begins with the men complaining about money. Then they start to dance and to sing, their first lyric being “Damn! Damn it all!” There comes a turning point when the men pause before commencing the chorus, “Let the heavens rain down coins!” The Lower Depths runs for 124 minutes, and this two-minute dance is an interlude with its own condensed narrative. In this scene’s compressed plot – complaints about and pleas for money – the men (and the audience) are indifferent to anybody outside the room. Ending this scene, a man tumbles into the room and yells “Come!”, interrupting our heartening Noh, our dancing prayer for fortune.
What I like and understood about this scene was how the men grappled with poverty. At first, they are their own self-hating audience, cursing and mocking themselves. Then they supplicate the heavens for miraculous financial assistance, and such is the real-life emotional rollercoaster associated with living impoverished. Audiences change actors’ expectations, and the attention of benevolent gods made these men more hopeful, which also reflects real life.
Noh was historically performed at the Japanese Imperial Court for the ruling aristocratic class, with three or four musical instruments and a chorus of six to eight singers. But the peasants’ play is beggarly and improvised. Kurosawa’s scene doesn’t have the historically rarefied, ritualized feel of Noh. Instead, these comedic choristers put on a folk religious ritual half-naked, babbling in coarse language, and being goofy with each other. This scene is authentic and endearing, exactly because these guys sing a silly song with sarcastic lyrics while dancing around their shabby apartment. Noh is generally regarded as beautiful but boring. However, in Kurosawa’s The Lower Depths, Noh becomes mundane in a totally relatable way.