Published by Douglas Messerli, the World Cinema Review features full-length reviews on film from the beginning of the industry to the present day, but the primary focus is on films of intelligence and cinematic quality, with an eye to exposing its readers to the best works in international film history.
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
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
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
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.
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 mergingtheir facial images in the glass between them.