Review: High and Low (1963)

highandlow1High and Low (or Heaven and Hell in the original Japanese) is a yin and yang film about the polarity of man in many ways. Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) is an affluent executive in the National Shoe Company. He worked his way up the corporate ladder from the age 16, because of his determination and commitment to a quality product. Now his colleagues want his help in forcing the company’s czar out. They come to his modernistic hilltop abode to get his support. Instead, they receive his ire, splitting in a huff. What follows is a risky plan of action from Gondo that is both fearless and shrewd. He takes all his capital to buy stock in the company so he can take over, but his whole financial stability hangs in the balance. He knows exactly what it means, but he wasn’t suspecting certain unforeseen developments.

Then in a matter of moments, everything changes. Gondo gets a menacing phone call claiming that his young boy is kidnapped and an astronomical sum of money is expected in return. Gondo and then his wife are instantly horrified by the news only to be relieved when their boy winds up unharmed. The same’s not true for his chauffeur’s boy Shinichi. The mistake in identity is obvious, but it makes no difference to the perpetrator because he still has leverage. He wants to make Gondo sweat since this is more than an isolated incident. He wants to make the man suffer – bringing him down to the level of all the unfortunate souls who live in the wasteland down below.

highandlow2At this point, the police are called and they arrive incognito, ready to stake out the joint and do the best they can to get the boy back safe and sound. This section of the film almost in its entirety takes place within the confines of Gondo’s house and namely the front room overlooking the city. It’s the perfect set up for Akira Kurosawa to situate his actors. He uses full use of the widescreen and his fluid camera movements keep them perfectly arranged within the frame.

Although the number of bodies also increases the anxiety in the space with Gondo at the center of it all trying to figure out what to do. Moral issues begin bubbling up that no man would have to deal with and yet they end up right in his lap. His whole business empire that he’s given his heart and soul to hangs in the balance of this decision, but he must make it nonetheless. Make the difficult choice to pay the ransom and do what’s moral, or not pay it and maintain his financial stability. For once in his life, their’s a hesitancy.

It’s as if he’s getting pulled back and forth with his wife chiding him, “Success isn’t worth losing your humanity,” while his opportunistic right-hand man is chomping at the bit to get a move on. He’s not going to allow his superior to sink all their prospects at financial gain.

As things progress, we finally move from the living room to the train where Gondo prepares to make the drop, but his adversary has planned out everything and has a clean getaway. The money is gone and now the police double their efforts. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, his backers are prepared to push Gondo out, because of his inability to pay them. Public opinion soars for the selfless act, and we finally meet our protagonist’s unknown adversary.

Really this second leg of the film is mostly about the procedural aspect as they begin hitting the pavement canvassing and trying to close in on the culprit. This section intercuts the reports going on at headquarters with actual police work on the streets and it’s strangely engaging.

highandlow3Finally, with the help of Shinichi, they make a startling discovery that ties back to the kidnapper. And the boy’s drawings along with a colorful stream of smoke help them move in ever closer. What follows is an elaborate web of trails through the streets as they work to catch the culprit in his crime, to put him away for good. And it works.

highandlow5But High and Low cannot end there without a consideration of the consequences. Gondo has been brought low. He’s losing his mansion and must start a new job on the bottom of the food chain once more. His enemy requests a final meeting as he prepares for his imminent fate, and this is perhaps the most grippingly painful scene. Gondo’s face-to-face with the man who made him suffer so much. Toshiro Mifune’s violent acting style serves him well as he wrestles so intensely with his own conscience. And yet at this junction, he is past that. What is he to do but listen? In this way, it’s difficult to know who to feel sorrier for — the man who is resigned to a certain fate passively or the one who goes out proud and arrogantly against death. Both have entered some dark territory and it’s no longer about high or low or even heaven and hell. They’re stuck in some middle ground. An equally frightening purgatory.

Yes, this works as an indictment of the justice system and even the capitalistic framework of an industrialist post-war Japan, but it’s even more so an acknowledgment of man’s own morality and mortality. We are far from indestructible, unfaltering beings.

4.5/5 Stars

High and Low (1963)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune, the film opens with a wealthy shoe company executive as he tries to struggle for control of the company. He makes a big gamble, waging everything he has to try and succeed. However, things take a bad turn when he believes his son has been kidnapped and the culprit wants an enormous payoff. It turns out that the son of Mr. Gondo’s chauffeur was taken but that makes no difference to the kidnapper. Mr. Gondo finally resolves to make the payoff and then the police who have been advising him take it from there. They work diligently to gather all the evidence they can and the net slowly begins to close  The police finally find the culprit, catch him in the act, and recover most of the money. However, in a meeting with Mr. Gondo the man who is about to die wants no pity at all. Despite the relatively long length of this film, it held my interest. All I had seen of Kurosawa before this were samurai films and so this gave me a different look at his work.

4.5/5 Stars

Seven Samurai (1954)

fde86-seven_samurai_movie_posterDirected by Akira Kurosawa, this is often considered one of the greatest films of all time. The story begins in a small Japanese village that is constantly being tormented by marauders. The bandits are about to strike again but decide to return after the harvest. The village elder advises the people to find some samurai in the time they have. Although they have no money, several men go to a town to look for help. There they witness the skill of an experienced samurai. He agrees to help them and also gathers five other skilled men who have no allegiance. They are followed by a seventh, wild samurai. The rest of the film follows the difficult relations between the anxious villagers and their protectors. The samurai fortify the village and also train the farmers for combat. Three samurai make a raid on the enemy and then later the bandits attack. They are hindered by the fortifications but still wreak havoc. The following day the climatic battle takes place. After the showdown, the village is safe but only 3 of the 7 are still alive.

4.5/5 Stars

Ikiru (1953)

4b946-426px-ikiru_posterDirected by Akira Kurosawa and starring Takashi Shimura, this drama is loaded full of irony. As the film opens, right away we learn the protagonist has stomach cancer, except he has yet to find out. He has spent 30 years of his life working at a monotonous job as a bureaucrat. Only after he discovers that he barely has 6 months left does Watanabe-san actually begin to live his life again. He tries the night life of Japan and it does not satisfy. Then he starts spending time with a lively, young worker that he used to know. All the while he thinks about telling his son about his condition but he cannot bring himself to do it. However, Watanabe-san finally finds a way to leave his mark on this life. And yet 5 months later he is dead and his fellow bureaucrats seemingly dismiss his accomplishment  Through a series of flashbacks they ultimately realize what he really did. I found this film to be powerful because this idea is so powerful. It makes me question if I am really living my life to the fullest extent.

5/5 Stars

Rashomon (1950)

Directed by the famed Akira Kurosawa, the film starts off with two men eventually joined by a third. Both seem very melancholy and they explain this is because of something that happened three days earlier. Apparently a bandit met a husband and wife on the road and raped the wife with the husband being killed. However, this event is shown in four different accounts all varying greatly and we never learn what is fact and what is actually fiction. Because of this horrible event, one of the men who is a priest loses faith in mankind. The film ends just as it began with the two men alone under a pagoda watching the driving rain. However, an act of kindness quickly renews the priest’s belief. Kurasawa’s film certainly has an interesting plot device and camera work. Historically, it is also important because it introduced the world to Japanese cinema

5/5 Stars

Stray Dog (1949)

Directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune and Takashi Shimura, the plot revolves around a rookie cop who has his gun swiped on a trolley in Tokyo. The young man is obsessive about getting his weapon back and after reporting the missing gun, he walks the streets looking for answers. His searching leads to a gun racket and after a crime is committed the rookie partners with an old vet on the case. They eventually wind up at a baseball game and begin searching for a man named Yusa. Another crime is committed and now the pair question a reluctant show girl. The older Sato follows the trail of Yusa and meets with trouble. Finally, the girl talks and the desperate rookie searches for the mysterious Yusa. In their final showdown he rights everything and retrieves his gun. I found this film-noir very atmospheric with post-war Tokyo and heat and humidity that you can almost feel. The two main characters have a solid chemistry because only together can they catch the Stray Dog.

4/5 Stars