By Melvin Cartagena
High & Low – 1963 – dir. Akira Kurosawa
The film has such assertive direction that it slips without effort from power play drama to suspense thriller to police procedural/manhunt chase to high drama. In spite of this blend of genres that for a lesser director would take three or four films to fully unravel in its complexity, this film is all Kurosawa, an assured and heady blend of action, drama and objective humanity.
High And Low’s original Japanese title, Tengoku to jigoku, translates as Heaven And Hell, which makes for one of those rare cases where the title change is both irrelevant in the film’s meaning, and also accurate. The Shakespearean drama unfolding in High And Low uses the tenets of film noir and the French policier to study the contemporary tensions between social strata, with the gulf between these groups serving as the arena where High And Low takes place.
On one end, there’s Kingo Gondo (Mifune), a high ranking executive of National Shoes. He lives in a comfortable, neat house that overlooks the Tokyo slums, much the same way an overlord in feudal time would set his castle to survey his land. On the other end, below Gondo, there’s an individual among the faceless mass of people. He lives in one of the cramped and suffocating shacks, coexisting with a never ending cacophony of music and industrial syncopation. He is seething with hate and frustration from staring up at Gondo’s pristine house. A citadel that to him is both smug and distant. Inviting, yet forever out of reach. This individual will do something about that house and its owner. He will inconvenience an ordered life for a while.
Once Kurosawa described Ran (1985) as “A series of incidents seen from heaven.” It’s possible that at such a late period in his career Kurosawa may have forgotten his past accomplishments, but the above description was fitting for the criss-crossing tragedies that develop in High And Low. We are in heaven and watch as Gondo, unknown to the kidnapper, faces a crisis of his own, inside his very own air-conditioned manse. In refusing to go along with the plans of the board executives to mass produce poor quality shoes, Gondo creates a roomful of enemies for himself, and a challenge he’s eager to take on. The Japanese dictum of Business is War is displayed in full by Gondo as he goes about mortgaging everything he owns in order to become the majority shareholder of the board, which will enable him to control the future of National Shoes. (This is an attitude he inculcates in his son, when he insists the boy show no mercy to his opponent when playing cowboys and Indians with the chauffer’s son.)
With Gondo’s deal on the verge of going through, he receives a call from the individual (Yamazaki), who informs Gondo that he’s kidnapped his son, and that he wants a ransom for the boy’s life. Suddenly, the spacious living room feels like glass cage, Gondo feels helpless and exposed when the kidnapper announces he’s watching the house, which forces the police to crawl on the floor to keep out of sight. (They arrive disguised as a company of furniture movers.) Then, the irony is compounded when Gondo’s son turns up fine. The kidnapper admits he snatched the chauffer’s son by mistake, but insists Gondo go through and pay the 30-million yen ransom, sending Gondo into a personal heaven and hell of his own. Gondo becomes a Wagnerian center around which multiple levels of emotions and ethics revolve, torn between following his human instincts, or the rigid corporate code that has made Japan a major player in global economics. (And Kurosawa creates wide angle-deep focus compositions inside Gondo’s living room that show us Gondo as the brooding figure whose decisions affect the satellites surrounding him, his wife, the chauffer, the police, and even the kidnapper as the pirate satellite.)
Gondo eventually follows his conscience, becoming a media darling when the story breaks out, and plunging us, the audience, straight into hell as the police launch their investigation. We peek right over their shoulders as their hunt for the kidnapper takes then down to street-level Tokyo. To the dope alleys and dive bars, the basement-level watering holes and red-light district houses. We have fallen a long way from Dante’s calm center, to the outer rim of the seventh circle, and unlike in Gondo’s home, where sliding the glass doors blocks out the noise, down here there’s no relief from what’s past the wall.
The dapper Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nadakai) leads the manhunt. A sensitive and relentless hound, aware of the gap between heaven and hell (the rough equivalent of a Greek chorus), he closes in on the kidnapper as he goes about disposing of his accomplices with pure horse. (Signature Kurosawa scene: the detectives crowd the dance floor, trying to blend in with the other dancers while keeping an eye on the kidnapper and his dance partner/drug dealer, waiting for the moment when the money trades hands for the merchandise.)
The greatest irony and dramatic counterpoint may be when Gondo and the kidnapper meet face to face, and we learn through their conversation that they are more or less the same person, opposite end products of the city and culture that raised them. Two men divided by socio-economic factors that separate them even further than physical distance.