Akira Kurosawa is probably best known for his period epics, often loosely adapted from Shakespearean dramas, but to think of Kurosawa as having only made samurai films is to miss the wide range and depth of his ability as a filmmaker.
Showing at Doc Films on Wednesday, November 26, High and Low is still as epic as Seven Samurai or Throne of Blood (both also part of Doc’s Kurosawa series). However, this time Kurosawa turns his camera on a contemporary story, set in Japan but drawing inspiration from an American crime novel: King’s Ransom by Ed McBain.
Toshiro Mifune (whose relationship with Kurosawa comprises the basis of the Doc series) stars as Kingo Gondo, an ambitious executive at National Shoes. After spending years working his way up from the factory floor, Gondo refuses the request from his colleagues to help them vote out the elderly president and instead makes his own plans to seize control of the company himself.
However, before he can put his plan into action, Gondo receives an anonymous call that his son has been kidnapped, and the kidnappers want 30 million yen as ransom, an amount that would destroy Gondo’s deal to buy his company. Although he agrees to pay without question (who wouldn’t for their own son?), it then comes to light that the kidnappers actually took the son of Gondo’s chauffeur, Aoki. The kidnappers still want the ransom, forcing Gondo to decide whether or not to throw away his professional success – all that he’s worked for – for another’s child.
This first half of the film takes place entirely within the living room of Gondo’s lavish apartment, with the police moving in to monitor the calls as Gondo anxiously deliberates over his options. Despite this set restriction, Kurosawa manages to make the most out of his staging and shot composition, taking full advantage of the newly developed widescreen format (TohoScope, not CinemaScope). As Gondo argues with his wife, his son, his aide, Aoki, and the police over paying the ransom, the characters all arrange themselves in still tableaux across the wide film frame, a reference to Kurosawa’s painterly origins.
Mifune’s performance as Gondo is in these times a bit more subdued than viewers familiar with his samurai performances might expect, but there are a few glimpses at his wilder side. He keeps a calm, rational face in front of others – a product of his businessman sensibilities – but two key moments of heightened drama are coupled with Gondo violently washing his face, an indication that all is not so simple inside him.
Once the film moves out of Gondo’s apartment to explore the lower depths of the city, Gondo himself falls to the side, relegated to the occasional appearance and reference from the police. Instead, the focus falls on the police as they slowly piece together the identity of the kidnapper from several small, seemingly unrelated clues.
This is the point where Kurosawa’s most American influences shine. The ensuing investigation, drawing from such minute details as the scrape of paint left on a fence to the rumble of a rail car (each train line has a distinct sound!), is directly drawn from the American police procedurals popular in the 1950s. These procedurals, like the summer Doc-screened T-Men, gained their power from a viewer’s interest in how the seemingly esoteric art of crime solving works.
The original Japanese title for High and Low is Tengoku to Jigoku, literally translating to Heaven and Hell. As the kidnapper alludes over the telephone, the lower half of society is sweltering, burning its unfortunate inhabitants alive. The kidnapper looks up to Gondo’s comfy house high up on a hill and grows in resentment as each empty day and night wears on.
However, the film is not necessarily a critique of high society, and the kidnapper ends up far from a martyr. Rather, the conjunction in the title serves not to separate high and low, but to bring them together. To show that both have their struggles and their successes.
Gondo is wealthy because he reached that point through hard work, and for a moment, he seems like the perfect target for the kidnapper, someone willing to sacrifice a child for his career. However, he eventually makes the right choice and suffers as a result. Meanwhile, the kidnapper is given his moment as he outwits the police with the meticulousness of his crime, though he, too, doesn’t get everything he wants. Ultimately, high and low are not as different as even their residents may believe.
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