Kurosawa's High and Low: A peek into the dark well of social life

Sreekrishna Sankar August 14, 2010

High and Low attempts to peek into the dark well of social life, to uncover the structures that alienate and reify human existence” – Stephen Prince in “The Warriors’ Camera: The cinema of Akira Kurosawa”

In Ginjirô Takeuchi’s dark glasses – the shades that probably inspired Frank Miller’s Kevin in Sin City - we see the reflection of the heat and the dust that was post world war II Japan – working hard to regain its balance and revive its economy, Americanized in more ways than one , it is shown as a heaven for the rich and the affluent entrepreneurs like Gondo and a simultaneous hell for the poor and the needy, the struggling and the victimized, and the aspiring hardworking middle class that Takeuchi represents.

High and Low’s Japanese title Tengoku to Jigoku literally means Heaven and Hell. And this is what Kurasawa beautifully portrays in his not-Rashomon-level-famous movie starring his favorite actor Toshiro Mifune as Gondo. Adapted from Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom, the movie has 3 acts to it – 3 different emotions interwoven seamlessly in a social environ so subtly that the audience does not feel the pedantry of the message passed through. The first act is the high, seen from the constrained social space that is the house of the affluent Gondo. The start reeks of the ruthlessness and the cool calculating attitude of business executives and their strategy discussions as Gondo plots ways to take over the firm himself. The second act is the investigation and finding the kidnapper, where Kurosawa weaves a completely different imagery of Japan – starting with the garbage littered pond showing the reflection of Takeuchi, the narrative takes us on a journey of Japan – the Japan of the less affluent, the ghettoes and the shady bars, the junkyards and the hospitals, which is totally different from what is seen by Gondo from the top of the hill. The third act is brief – Gondo goes to meet Takeuchi in the jail and is alarmed at why there should be so much hate and spite between them, but as Kurosawa fades out for the end credits, we know that the class struggle and conflicts will never end as Gondo is left to reflect on his own.

The first act is set in the house on the hill. Gondo, the protagonist, is a rags-to-riches industrialist trying to do a leveraged buyout of his shoe company so that he can sell better shoes to his customers unlike his partners who are just keener on profit maximization. While this argument is going on, his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped in a case of mistaken identity. Heavily reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s ‘Rope’, this entire segment is set in Gondo’s front room, with a few exceptions. In this claustrophobic and intense session where the audience subconsciously yearns for a peek of the outside world which is tightly sealed off by the glass windows of the house, we see the Steppenwolfian confusion that Gondo undergoes – whether to protect his own wealth or save his chauffeur’s son from imminent death.

Gondo pays and finally brings back the chauffeur’s son. If this first act tells about Gondo’s intense struggle, the second act is an intense investigation, which looks right out of Fritz Lang’s M, but set in the hot and humid Japanese summer. The cops are diligent, sensible and sensitive to the sacrifice of Gondo. They continue in their laborious routine of tracking down every possible clue about the kidnapper. Especially noteworthy is a team discussion where the various teams discuss their discoveries and insights, all sweaty and tired, signaling the immense efforts of covering all the possibilities – like one of the intense discussion scenes in Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men. The investigation is comprehensive, maybe too comprehensive for our liking but then suddenly we have the kidnapper in our sights – a medical intern who gets finally caught, but not before Kurosawa has taken us through a foul ghetto where the extreme low of Japan is shown.

The hot and humid investigation room, reminiscent of 12 Angry Men

The finale is outright Camusian – if Meursault makes fun of the chaplain before his execution in “The Stranger”, the antagonist here wants to meet Gondo. While he shows no remorse and is nearly happy at what he has done, in a real diversion from Camus, he is afraid of death and is showcased towards the end as half crazy. The ending has no Scorsesian redemption or unexpected twists but leaves us in silence to ponder. The two protagonists are separated by a wireframe and glass – and in some of the shots, we see overlaps of Gondo and Takeuchi – as if Kurosawa is subtly suggesting that both are equal – despite being separated by the chasm between good and evil, there is no difference between them.

The Final Scene

As a thriller alone, this would have been a good film but when it becomes a social commentary and morality play, it transcends into greatness exploring the depth of characters and the complexities of life in a fast Americanizing Japan of the 60s. Like a palimpsest which could reveal more and more as we scratch deeper, Gondo transforms from a fiercely competitive, unemotional-to-an-extent businessman in the beginning to someone who is so humane that he gives up his own wealth to save someone else’s child while Takeuchi transforms from the cool and calculated kidnapper, who improvises calmly as it goes, sometimes with awesome precision that is so essential in his medical profession, to a half-crazy and afraid convict in the end. The anger that Takeuchi has arising out of the intense frustration of his own pitiable existence while Gondo lives in a public show of grandeur and opulence – a big house on top of the hill visible from the antagonist’s house is critical in setting the social tone of the movie.

Did Takeuchi really think through his plan? How can he make an amateurish mistake of kidnapping the wrong child? How can a medical intern kill two people so easily? If he had escaped, would he repeat it? There is a scene where Takeuchi goes over to Gondo to light his cigarette – ironically an attempt to truly understand the personality that he so desperately hates for no logical reason. Just like Camus’ Meursault who commits a murder simply due to the summer heat, did he also commit the crime due to the humid summer, a reason much more animalistic and fundamental than even jealousy? Will the class difference never cease to exist?

Every great movie leaves you with an image, long after you have seen it. High and Low reminds me of an imaginary scene of humid Japanese summer with Mifune, crisply dressed in a white shirt sitting in his front room thinking about how to deliver better shoes to his customers, his chauffeur standing near him with head bent down due to gratitude for saving his son, and the kidnapper peeking through the shrubs in his characteristic shades, with no remorse over what he has done but just jealous and angry.

Cinema, class, japan, kurosowa, Review Share this Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported

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