While most well known for his classic Japanese period dramas, such as Seven Samurai, Rashomon, and Throne Of Blood, the fact is that director Akira Kurosawa’s lasting legacy will be sustained by his towering achievements in then contemporary Japanese drama — films such as Ikiru, The Bad Sleep Well, and 1963’s black and white crime drama High And Low.
Words like masterpiece simply do not do justice to such wholly and uniquely great cinema. And it’s not the fact that Kurosawa was able to blend action, social, and other genre pieces, long associated with melodrama, with high and deep pure drama, but the fact that his ability to use radical means, quickly establish characterization and suspense, and add in true ethos and philosophy is nonpareil. Yes, other directors have done so working in manifest dramas — the best works of Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Michelangelo Antonioni, Stanley Kubrick, and Woody Allen have achieved this, but only Kurosawa risked the disaster of pretension by mixing pulp fiction with art. Granted, early Martin Scorsese films come close, but Kurosawa is the master from whom Scorsese was weaned.
High And Low (Tengoku To Jigoku; literally Heaven And Hell) is a film that is so perfect in every detail it shows how utterly silly similar Hollywood takes on the matter are, and were: think Ron Howard’s and Mel Gibson’s silly 1996 flick Ransom, or any of Alfred Hitchcock’s crime dramas from the 1950s or 1960s. Yes, critics often resort to the copout that Hitchcock was not deep, but technically was great. True, to a degree, but one need only watch the rail car sequence in this film to see how staid, old fashioned, conservative, and utterly quaint Hitchcock’s ideas on crime were.
The truth is that Hitchcock really had no idea what drove criminals. Kurosawa did. To the Englishman, crimes were Freudian impelled, and committed by people with manifest things wrong with them. The claim he made was one merely had to be adept at spotting such things. Kurosawa shows that crime (as it does in reality) emerges from complex and obscure things. Its evildoers are often manifestly plain and their reasons never discernible. What drives High And Low to such greatness is that, even after all is revealed, the criminal apprehended, and the film at an end, the viewer is still pondering, in the best sense, and still unable to grasp how and why such a thing occurred. Yet, the film only gets to that point after peerless artistic and technical means.
The peerless screenplay was written by Kurosawa, Eijirô Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni, adapted from the 1959 pulp novel King’s Ransom. The book was written by Ed McBain, pseudonym for Evan Hunter, which was the adopted name of Salvatore Albert Lombino. Using a variety of pen names, McBain penned pulp crime books that were three or four levels below Mickey Spillane. As Hunter, he wrote The Blackboard Jungle and the screen adaptation for Hitchcock’s The Birds — probably the best film the great profile ever made. In short, under whatever guise, Hunter was no budding John Steinbeck.
This makes the adaptation by Hisaita all the more impressive, for, while I never read the novel the film is derived from, as a youth I read a few McBain books and, even then, saw they were cardboard, both character- and plot-wise. Most criticisms of the film claim that, aside from the basic premise, the two works deviate greatly. One can thus likely (according to Occam’s Razor) attribute the positives in this 143 minute (but swift paced) long film to the work of Hisaita and company, not McBain.
The story is as follows: the film opens as sort of an inverse of Ikiru. The last half of that film was set entirely at a wake, with a few interruptions via flashback. This film’s first 40% (about 55 minutes) takes place in a luxurious Westernized house on a hillside in the city of Yokohama, replete with air conditioning and tinted windows which keep the sounds, scenes, and scents of the industrial city at bay. The house is owned by Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), a shoe executive with National Shoes, whose business motto is, "A man must kill or be killed." He is ripping into some colleagues who want to make inferior products that sell better, and scheming to take away the company from the man who founded it.
The three other executives own 7% of the stock each, while the ‘Old Man’ owns 25%. Unbeknownst to them, or Gondo’s assistant, Kawanishi (Tatsuya Mihashi), Gondo actually owns 28% of the stock, and has raised 50 million yen to purchase another 19%, giving him 47% of the company — more than the three men and the old Man combined. He can now take over the company he started at as a boy. After dismissing his three colleagues, who are embittered, and just as he is about to send his assistant off to Osaka to complete the deal, he gets a phone call claiming his son, Jun (Toshio Egi), has been kidnapped. The kidnapper demands 30 million yen for his release. Gondo is stunned, and his wife, Reiko (Kyôko Kagawa), crushed. Just as he is about to reach the apex of his career it is to be taken away. But, the kidnapper has erred. He has taken not Jun, but Jun’s friend Shinichi (Masahiko Shimazu), son of Gondo’s chauffer, a widower named Aoki (Yutaka Sada), who was wearing his friend’s cowboy costume.
Despite being advised not to, Gondo calls the police, the main lawmen being Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) and Detective Bos’n (Kenjiro Ishiyama), and they tape his calls from the kidnapper, in order to trace them. But they cannot. We sometimes see the calls in real time, and at other times are elided to a replay of a call, at a later moment. Gondo, at first, refuses to pay the ransom, despite pleas from his chauffer and his wife. Kawanishi wants to still go to Osaka, but Gondo stops him. By the next morning, Kawanishi sells Gondo out to his three rivals, telling them of his plans and the kidnapping. He claims that Gondo would be reviled if he denied the kidnapper’s wishes. Gondo rages and throws Kawanishi out, while giving in, and deciding to risk his fortune to save the boy.
The kidnapper, meanwhile, advises Gondo to put all the unmarked money in two cases of a certain size and toss them out of a speeding train the next morning. He does, after getting a call from the kidnapper while on board the train, and the first part of the film ends with the cops getting only a few clues as to who the kidnapper is, via the return of Shinichi, some still photos, and film taken aboard the train. The scenes, shot on a real train, are superb, and make the similar sorts of bad process shot scenes Hitchcock filmed in several movies seem the lazy and amateurish work they are.
The second half, almost an hour and a half, deals less with Gondo, and more with the slog of police work. This is not a network television crime show where deus ex machinas quickly arise, but a slow and complex undertaking, shown quite realistically for the day. We soon see the nameless kidnapper, who is aggravated that Gondo is hailed as a national hero for forfeiting his fortune for his employee’s son. Why he did it remains a mystery. The film also does not let us see anything of the criminal until this point.
The viewer, thus, is taken along by the narrative, and not two steps ahead of the cops. This instills an emotional investment in even the most mundane actions, for they might be clues. If we know who and why the criminal acts were committed, we’d be bored with the red herrings and disdainful of the characters who could not see what, to the viewer with knowledge, is ‘obvious.’ Why so few crime dramas follow this tack is a mystery; at least if one does not realize that most artists assume they are creating for idiots and thus speak down to them.
As the clues turn up, slowly, and the net tightens around the suspect, a medical intern named Ginjirô Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), we learn that his accomplices, who actually held the boy, are two heroin addicts Shinichi called Auntie and Uncle, who overdosed by taking pure heroin. This makes Takeuchi a de facto murderer. The police tail him, for they a) want to recover Gondo’s money and b) need more evidence linking Takeuchi to the murders, for kidnapping, especially of a non-relative to the ransom victim, is technically not extortion by then current Japanese laws, and Takeuchi would get off with an easy sentence.
So, they have the press plant a false story of some of Gondo’s money being spent, and make no mention of the two murders. Then they forge a note that has Takeuchi being extorted for more money by the accomplices, whom the criminal does not realize are dead. Thus, the cops hope to get him to come back to the hideout (a villa owned by the hunkies’ employer) and try to ‘kill’ them, again. But, while tailing them, he detours to slyly buy pure heroin at a rock club, while dancing with a female dealer, then makes off for 'Dope Alley' — which is near a military base, where he tests his pure heroin on a hooker who is a junkie. On a personal note, these scenes reminded me of a PG-rated version of the X-rated heroin galleries my friends and I used to play in, as children, in the Bushwick area of the borough of Brooklyn. When she dies, Takeuchi heads to the villa. He is quickly apprehended, and the scene shifts to many months later, where, as a last request, before execution, the kidnapper asks to see Gondo.
Although he lost his home and possessions (for the money was recovered too late to help him avoid bankruptcy), as well as his job at National Shoes (his office enemies gave him no quarter despite great public acclaim as a hero, and a boycott), Gondo accedes. The final scene is of Gondo and Takeuchi, face-to-face through steel bars and glass. Gondo’s reflected face often covers Takeuchi’s, and vice-versa — a sly comment on the fact that both men are master manipulators, despite an ethical chasm. It is one of many instances where Kurosawa uses reflection brilliantly. Others include reflections of the kidnapper walking by a filthy stream, streetlamp light in car windows, and reflections off the sunglasses Takeuchi wears while in Dope Alley — the yellow pinpoints make him seem almost cat-like and inhuman in the dark.
Takeuchi mostly rambles, takes pride in having lowered a ‘fortunate man,’ sheds little light on his motives, save for claiming a rough life, which he does not detail, hating the fact that Gondo lived high on the hill, looking down on those below, and being thankful his mother died before his scheme, lest she shower him with indignation, tears, and rebuke. Then he screams and tries to attack Gondo, wailing, in fear of death — despite his denials, but he's stopped by the barriers. Guards rush in, drag him away, and a steel gate slams down, leaving Gondo alone facing nothing. It is a heart-rending, and perfect, ending.
Despite its technical perfection, the film scores highly for its deeper meanings. Kingo Gondo, as example, not only faces an ethical choice of paying for the release of the child, while possibly destroying his career, but a loss of social standing and respect. To him, his job at National Shoes is more than a career, thus his hesitation to pay the ransom the next morning is explicable. We know he started off poor and worked his way up from the very bottom. He defines himself by his career (see the wonderful opening scene where he rebukes his greedy colleagues who care nothing of quality). He does not have a career; he is his career.
In essence, he must kill a large part of himself for a child unrelated to him. And, while doing so, he faces the tugs of the police, who want to rescue the boy; the chauffer, who begs for his employer’s help; his wife, who is accustomed to luxury, not sacrifice, from birth (she is manifestly a Japanese ‘trophy wife’ for Gondo) yet chides him to not lose his soul, asking a version of the old Biblical question, "What good is success if you lose your humanity?" (this while dealing with his rivals, before the kidnapping; the words take on added meaning later); his assistant Kawanishi, whom he knows will betray him somehow, yet who offers contradictory advice; and the kidnapper, who seems to nurse a personal hatred for Gondo, for reasons which are never learned. In the role, Mifune gives one of his greatest performances. He dominates the first hour like few actors and characters have a film, and then slowly recedes into acceptance of his reduced status as the film perdures.
Then there are scenes which would have been throwaways in lesser films, such as when Gondo rebukes Kawanishi, who returns with an offer of a token position in National Shoes, to mitigate the public relations damage they suffer for booting Gondo out of the company, even as Gondo’s creditors (perhaps gangsters – due to their gaudy clothing they are not traditional Japanese businessmen) piece by piece are parsing his existence, and will not even let him pay off the interest on the money he borrowed, forcing him into bankruptcy to pay off the lump sum, when the money is recovered.
Then there is the scene when Shinichi is rescued, and he and Jun go off to play, but his father, the chauffer, rebukes his son for not being of more help. We see and feel the man’s shame and regret at the turn of events. He feels it is his fault that his son caused the ruin of his boss. Thus, he resents his son’s not understanding what really occurred. Later, he and the boy try to play amateur detective, until the police catch up with them. Kurosawa also is a master at tension building, but in an existential manner; not in the puppetmastering that Hitchcock used, which guided actions, not deeper motives. Take a look at the scenes on the train, and where Gondo realizes why the kidnapper specified a certain size for the bags. He seems to realize the cops won’t catch the kidnapper, but then he sees Shinichi on a hillside, and joy infects him. We see that Gondo is really not a heartless businessman, like his shoe rivals. Tension builds and is released in that scene due to an hour’s worth of dialogue and character development beforehand, not because the characters are worried a psychopath with blow up the train in typical Hollywood style.
Filmmaker Carl Theodor Dreyer once opined about mood defining a story. He stated:
Imagine we are sitting in an ordinary room. Suddenly we are told that there is a corpse behind the door. In an instant, the room we are sitting in is completely altered: everything in it has taken on another level; the light, the atmosphere have changed, though they are physically the same. This is because we have changed.…This is the effect I want to get.
Alfred Hitchcock used this ploy in one of his best films, Rope, whose entirety is sort of an inverse of this film’s first 55 minutes, while Kurosawa follows a parallel track in regards to character.
What changes in the scene on the train is not a willful manipulation of a character, by a screenwriter, but an organic and believable flowering into character, due to circumstances that are not contrived. Instead of knowing of a corpse behind the door, the audience’s first hour has let us become that corpse, or thing, with knowledge of itself. In essence, we know what Gondo will do because his character has been so skillfully revealed, despite many seeming moments that paint him as something other than his true self. That the remainder of the film shows a more complacent Gondo (check out the scene where he whistles as he mows his own lawn) is, thus, not in the least implausible, for it is the logical outcome of all that has gone before.
As example, when speaking to Takeuchi, Gondo reveals that he was hired to run a small shoe company dedicated to quality, which he hopes will rival National Shoes, the audience feels that, despite his debts (for not all the ransom money was recovered, and we see a scene where auctioneers tag his furniture for future repossession), Gondo has gotten his reward. He will run things his way, and has not compromised. In an odd way, the kidnapping may have saved him from becoming like his three heartless colleagues at National Shoes. Gondo has retained his humanity and dignity, with a chance to start over. This is even foreshadowed in the first hour, when Gondo’s wife retrieves his old shoe repair kit, and he helps hide some packets that will release odors or colored smoke if the kidnapper tries to toss the bags into water or fire.
Later on, pink smoke from a chimney (the only color in the film), first seen by Shinichi, helps give away the fact the kidnapper has gotten rid of the bags. Yet, aside from mere plot revelation, the scene shows that Gondo is a self-made man, a lowly leather worker made good. Thus, not only is his coming fall made all the more galling, but it makes the kidnapper’s resentment of Gondo as a ‘man of means’ all the more meaningless, since Gondo has been where Takeuchi is. This is pointed out in a brief scene, a bit earlier, when the cops are tailing Takeuchi before he hits the rock club to score heroin.
Amazingly, no critic seems to have ever noticed it, despite it being a touchingly revealing scene. Takeuchi is wandering downtown, looking for a cigarette light, and taps Gondo on the shoulder, as the older man looks into a show store window with longing. Gondo gives him a light, unawares that this is the man responsible for his fall, even as the kidnapper occupies the same reflected space in the window, twinning the two men earlier than the prison scene. Yet, we see the devotion with which Gondo looks at the merchandise; a bookend to his earlier scene where he destroys a bad pair of shoes his rivals want to sell, while in his home. Kurosawa so underplays the moment, and it goes by so quickly, that most viewers might miss it. We are not even certain if the cops tailing Takeuchi notice Gondo’s presence, for only Takeuchi seems to notice that it is Gondo that gives him the light. But, it is one of those moments that separates great from merely good artists, for what draws Takeuchi across the street (mockery, sadism, sympathy) to his victim is unknown.
Kurosawa also paces the film quickly, scene-wise, even in the first half, while virtually set all in a single room. This allows for the feeling of sharing memories with a character later in a film. Yet, this is not done in the pointless and MTV-like way most Hollywood thrillers do. Likewise, Kurosawa sets his film in a specific geography. During their investigation, the viewer and the police see Gondo’s posh Yokohama home and the kidnapper’s hideout from many locations. We see the placement of the pay phones, an island in the harbor, the tenements and Dope Alley, downtown, and assorted other places. All of this helps frame the port city, and where and when things took place, even though Kurosawa shows us nothing of the crime as it happens. Even the difference in sound of a certain trolley line helps place the action in a certain locale.
The DVD is a new two-disk release of the film, replacing an earlier one-disk version, and slated for release later in July, 2008. The quality of the print is excellent, with virtually no flaws. The first disk contains the film and an audio commentary by Stephen Prince, a scholar of Kurosawa’s work. The second disk has the features, which include a 37 minute long making of documentary on the film, from the Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create series.
There are also interviews with Mifune (from a 1981 television talk show) on his career, and a recent one with Tsutomu Yamazaki, the kidnapper. Both are top notch. There are also theatrical trailers from Japan and America, as well as a teaser trailer. There is also a booklet with essays from film critic Geoffrey O’Brien and Japanese film expert Donald Richie. Truthfully, all of the extras, while good, could have easily been encoded onto the one disk. It is likely that Criterion made it a two-disk set merely to distinguish this release from the earlier one disk release that was shorn of extras. As the film is shown in its original Tohoscope 2.35:1 aspect ratio, the fact that the subtitles are in white is no problem, because, instead of having to read them against the black and white cinematic images, they stand out well against the black letterboxing on the bottom of the screen.
The assorted extras speak about how the film helped change the legal system in Japan, adding extra harshness to kidnapping convictions. Prince’s excellent commentary goes into depth about how the cops’ actions are questionable, and allow Takeuchi to kill the junky, which was preventable. He also compares the film to Sidney Lumet’s 1957 film 12 Angry Men, as a set piece (especially in the first hour), and to Hitchcock’s Strangers On A Train- especially the scene where the soon to be dead junkie is reflected in Takeuchi’s sunglasses. He also goes into detail on the great use of widescreen cinematography that Kurosawa uses (with his two main camera men, Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saitô), and how modern filmmakers now shoot closer and obsessively cut and edit, which never allows a viewer to pick and choose which actions to focus on, thereby robbing the film of its narrative and character depth.
Prince is one of the best DVD commentators around, for he sticks on point, and while manifestly scripted, his asides are so pointed and focused upon the scenes that it does not matter, for he never sounds wooden and robotic, as many commentators are. The film’s soundtrack, by Masaru Satô, is spare, and rarely used, although Prince does digress upon it. This is a film far more dependent upon the narrative and visuals. Kurosawa’s only regular musical cues come whenever the police have minor victories.
Overall, High And Low is a great film, whose Americanized title — like Vittorio De Sica’s Ladri Di Biciclette, whose title has historically been mistranslated as The Bicycle Thief rather than Bicycle Thieves – is a fortuitous gaffe, for the ‘wrong’ translated title is far more evocative and less strident than its literal translation. The film’s exploration and criticisms of social aspects of times and places past is timeless and the film shows how a great artist can mine true cosmic depth out of the must mundane of propositions that lesser artists make hackwork out of, such as Reiko’s banal query: "What good is success if you lose your humanity?"
The real tragedy of this film is not what occurs within its frame, but that even such banalities are not asked today in the modern world of filmmaking, much less extrapolated upon in such a proud and grand way. Akira Kurosawa was a giant of cinema, and world art, in general; a man whose output will be seen, centuries hence, the way Shakespeare’s and Goya’s are today, but that gigantism was built upon and borne by the desire to explore even the minutest moments of the human condition; not in a weepy, bleeding heart liberal sort of way, but in a deep, penetrating way that celebrated the best part of the human being: his intellect.
In today’s dumbed down, politically correct society, such films are not only not made, but not even contemplated. When the history of turn of the millennium cinema is finally written, one of the key questions asked will be what happened to the basic striving for high art? Why did it become gauche to want to excel, and to want to treat an audience with respect? Of course, the film asks these same sorts of queries (along with the more banal ones it subverts) in regards to its lead character’s professions, which only shows how great art recapitulates itself again and again, regardless of the changing circumstances of history, while bad art is entombed by its stolidity. Great artists know this, and, while glaring at his own reflection, at film’s end, one senses a more peaceable Kingo Gondo knows it, too. Or, at least we hope he does. That we do says as much of Kurosawa as it does of us and our newer times.