Friday, November 23, 2012

Akira Kurosawa | Tengoku to Jigoku (High and Low)

the house on the hill
by Douglas Messerli

Eijirō Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, and Hideo Oguni (screenplay, based, in part, on King’s Ransom by Ed McBain), Akira Kurosawa (director) Tengoku to Jigoku (High and Low) / 1963

In Japanese Kurosawa’s film translates literally as “Heaven and Hell,” two metaphysical positions that can be seen to shift throughout the work, whereas the English language translation of “High and Low” are formally set: the fashionable house on the hill where Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) and his family live quite obviously representing a “high” life, while the crowded slum in which the film’s villain, medical intern Ginjirō Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki) exists, revealing the sociological underside of Japanese culture, most definitely the life the low. Yet Kurosawa’s seemingly bi-partite (in truth, it is more tri-partite) structure sets up a number of reversals right from the start.

       Gondo, his wife Reiko (Kyōko Kagawa), and his young son, Jun, seemingly have all they might desire. As an executive in the National Shoes company, Kondo has a personal secretary, Kawanishi (Tatsuya Mihashi) and a live-in chauffeur, Aoki (Yutaka Sada), and a fabulous view of the surrounding city. But, as the film quickly reveals, the world in which he lives is about to be threatened. Other executives from the company have paid him a visit to ask Gondo to join them in taking over the company from its founder so that they might produce more cheaply made but more fashionable shoes. Gondo, however, rejects their offer: he would prefer the well-made shoes the company currently produces were simply more stylish, although he knows the profit will not be as substantial. The others see shoes as decorations, like a hat, something purposely made to go out of style quickly, while Gondo believes that quality will pay off in the long run. So, it appears, that Kurosawa has set up his central figure as a man of moderation, an individual arguing for customer satisfaction and permanence rather than simply basing the product on money. The other executives, angered by his refusal, are rudely shown out of Gondo’s house by his secretary.

      We soon discover, however, that Gondo has determined to leverage a buyout of the others, having mortgaged everything he has in order to raise the money to gain company control, believing that he will make back his expenditure with profits. He orders his secretary to travel to Osaka to pay the first installment. In short, Gondo is not at all what he first seems, and is scolded for being so impolitic by his clearly more level-headed wife. When his child, playing cops and robbers with the chauffeur’s son appears, he encourages his son to not simply run as the other shoots, but to trick his opponent through surprise maneuvers. Reiko’s disdain for his attitudes is apparent. The house on the hill may look like “heaven,” suggests the director, but trouble is clearly brewing beneath the surface.

     Almost immediately that “trouble” boils over as the chauffeur appears, asking if they have seen his son Shinichi. He has been playing with Jun, they report. The telephone rings, bringing the voice of a man claiming that he has just kidnapped Jun, demanding a large payment and insisting that if they go to the police, he will kill the boy. Horrified, Gondo realizes that he has no choice but to use the money with which he intended to buy out the company for his son’s release. But just as suddenly Jun reenters the house. A few minutes later, the couple and their chauffeur realize that it is Shinichi who has mistakenly been kidnapped, the fact of which the kidnapper, calling again, confirms, while still demanding the money on the same terms. Suddenly, Gondo shifts position; he refuses to pay ransom for another’s son, and despite the kidnapper’s threat, he calls the police. Once more we see that Gondo is not at all altruistic, but a man who attempts to manipulate situations for his own gain. The secretary is again ordered to make plans to travel to Osaka.

      Throughout this long scene, Kurosawa films the family and their employees, along with the police, as being trapped within the shuttered living-room of the house while Gondo struggles with his moral scruples, both his wife and his chauffeur pleading for him to pay for Shinichi’s release. To do so, however, would be to lose everything they own, including their beautiful house. Reiko, he reminds her, has been born into luxury and would be unable to survive such a radically changed life. She, in turn, reminds him that he has used her dowry, in part, to buy the kind of life they live, suggesting that the couple also represent a kind of high and low pedigree, Gondo obviously having worked his way up the social ladder.

     Into this closeted, emotional maelstrom, moreover, both the kidnapper and the policemen intrude themselves, the latter spending the night on Gondo’s floor and couch. By morning, Gondo has determined, so he announces, not to pay the ransom. Reiko and Aoki continue to plead, even the chief of police entering, at times, into the debate. When Gondo’s ambitious secretary, however, admits that he has told the other executives about his bosses’ plot, Gondo gives in, ordering the bank to deliver the money in the proper denominations which the kidnapper has demanded.

      Film critic Joan Mellen has argued that this first part of the film—65 minutes of the 143 minutes-long movie—with its “obvious moral message,” is salvaged by the film’s descent in its second part to the low-life world it portrays. But as I suggest, it is not so clear in this film what is high and what is low, whether the life the Gondos lead is one aligned with heaven or closer to a life in hell. Moreover, it is just those moral conundrums of the first part give such intense meaning to the rest of Kurosawa’s great work.

     Certainly there is no question, however, when suddenly in the very next scene, where Gondo sits worriedly on a bullet-train seat, the cases of money tightly grasped, that something has radically changed. The very horizontal motion of the speeding train racing across the countryside is a startling shift from the darkened verticality of the Gondo house. If in his own house Gondo appeared to be in control, once he has made the decision to give away his money, descending into the world below and moving from the vertical to the horizontal, he is represented as a frightened being, a true fish out of water.  Cleverly, the kidnapper has not entered into this horizontal world, but telephones to the train, explaining that Gondo will see Shinichi standing by upcoming bridge and that, upon seeing him alive, Gondo should through the money out the bathroom window. The police aboard the train have no choice but watch Gondo’s tortured acts: the train will not stop until several miles down the track.

      The boy is rescued, but Kurosawa does focus upon his return to the house on the hill, nor do we immediately follow Gondo’s return to his world. Rather, Kurosawa takes us into what suddenly seems like a new genre different from the psychological film of the first part. Suddenly, we are dropped into a police conference that might have been the inspiration for episodes for the American TV series, Hill Street Blues. One by one, pairs of detectives, each assigned different tasks, report their results, often enough revealing no real information or their informants’ lack of facts, at other times pinning down pieces of obscure bits of gumshoe research that might lead to something. If the Gondo house was “heaven,” we are clearly now in purgatory, a world where nearly everything might or may not be consequential. Here instead of things moving vertically, actions are defined by their circularity, as in the long sequence where, realizing that the chauffeur has taken his son in search of seaside villa in which he was held by partners of the kidnapper, two detectives follow other clues, arriving at the same location via an entirely different route. Within the villa are dead men and women, killed, evidently by injections of “pure” heroin. Realizing now that the kidnapper must have had connections with the medical profession, the detectives circle in on a young medical intern, ultimately following him into the final world of the picture’s title, the hell wherein the kidnapper lives.

     If Gondo, living in “heaven,” spends much of his time looking down into the world below his hill top house, medical intern Takeuchi is almost always seen in the film as moving up, upstairs to his apartment, upstairs—as the police first glimpse him—in the hospital in which he works. By tricking him to believe that his cohorts have survived their heroin-laced murders, they force Takeuchi to repeat his own crime, sending him, they hope, once more up into the hills where the villa sits. Following him, the police are taken in directions they might have not expected, first to a flower shop (reminding one, somewhat, of Madeline Elster’s several visits to a flower ship in Vertigo) where he purchases a carnation.. The next stop along the way is a crowded bar that might appear to be a literal manifestation of the hellish world in which the intern lives. But even here, carnation in his lapel, Takeuchi sits high above the din of unruly dancers, pimps, sailors, and American voyeurs—a world in which, satirically, the underground policemen seem to be a home. Only when he discerns his “connection,” does the kidnaper descend to the dance floor below.

      His next destination is also into a hellish world, but again one they might not have expected: a dark cul-de-sac where desperate drug addicts await the arrival of anyone who might provide them a high. Only here, finally, are the police recognized for who they are, and made unwelcome at the street gates, while Takeuchi is readily admitted. But why has he stopped here in his voyage to the hillside villa one can only ask?

      As he seeks out a young woman and takes her into a nearby sleazy hotel room, both police and audience suddenly recognize that he has stopped along his way simply to test out the potency of his uncut drug. Before the police can rush in to save her, the girl is dead. But in his attempt to rush away, Takeuchi is apprehended even before he can begin the climb to the villa’s heights.

      Although they find most of Gondo’s money, it is too late, his possessions and his house all having been repossessed. In a brilliant last scene Kurosawa brings to the two men, the former executive and kidnapper, the fallen and aspirant, both men of questionable ethics—although, in an ironic twist of events, Takeuchi has transformed his enemy into a hero—together at a prison visiting window, wherein the criminal attempts to explain his motivations.

                       Kingo Gondo: Why should you and I hate each other?
                       Takeuchi: I don’t know. I’m not interested in self-analysis.
                             I do know my room was so cold in winter and so hot
                             in summer I couldn’t sleep. Your house looked like
                             heaven, high up there. That’s how I began to hate you.

Takeuchi, clearly suffering deeply, is the true fool, for he has imagined a heaven that is equally a hell, while through Takeuchi’s acts, Gondo in his fall, has been redeemed. Just as in moving in different directions, the police and the chauffeur and his son have reached the same spot, so too have Takeuchi and Gondo discovered their destinations are similar, even if one is free and the imprisoned, Kurosawa merging their facial images in the glass between them.

Los Angeles, November 22, 2012

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