#24 High and Low
1963 // Japan // Akira Kurosawa
Criterion Collection (LINK)
High Up in Heaven or Down in Hell
The films by Akira Kurosawa in majority, no matter jidaigeki/samurai or contemporary, are subsumed with a deep sense of social conscience and often concretise the inexorable socio-economic division. Amidst all, High and Low would be the aptest exemplary just by starting with its title. The class division on opposite end of the social spectrum, namely the rich and the poor, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat, the governing and the submitting, is expressed by the dichotomy of words used in the film title. The high, Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) the executive of the National Shoes company living in a spacious, air-conditioned mansion situated at the top of a hill overlooking the low, the hellish heat swamp of packed house in Yokohama, represented by the kidnapper Ginjiro Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki).
The literal translation of the Japanese film title means “Heaven and Hell”, directly signifying the difference and the collision of two worlds. The two worlds, separated geographically (one high, one low), figuratively, as well as narratively. The film is discernible as two sections, the first part establishes the moral dilemma exacted on Gondo when his chauffeur’s son Shinichi is misidentified as Gondo’s own son Jun and mistakenly kidnapped for ransom. If Gondo pay the amount of money requested by the kidnapper, it would impede Gondo’s plan of outwitting his fellow executives in overtaking the company stock, which would subsequently bankrupt him. At first Gondo stone-heartedly refuses to pay the ransom, but ultimately changes his mind the next morning, partly owning to his wife Reiko’s (Kyoko Kagawa) persuasion as success cannot outbid humanity, partly due to the fact that his assistant Kawanishi (Tatsuya Mihashi) betrays him by telling his secret business plan to his rivalries in exchange for higher position, and perhaps lastly due to his incapability of letting the son of Aoki (Yutaka Sada), his chauffeur, die in replacement of his son.
The first fifty minutes of the film, before transferring to the moving train with Gondo carrying the two briefcases of ransom money, is constrained within the living space of Gondo’s mansion with the miniature of Yokohama sporadically visible through the glass window in the background. The composition and framing, the characters position and movement, are the impeccable examples of telling a story with mise-en-scène. The wide scope frame encompasses multiple characters at a time, and often places them at the edge of the framing to intensify the class tension when necessary. The multi-camera cutting and reposition of framing with slight camera movement open up the interior space with vigorous dynamic, placing Gondo against disparate perspectives from sectors of family (Reiko and Aoki), immoral corporation (Kawanishi), and the police. Police, led by Inspector Tokuro (Tatsuya Nakadai), is the symbol of justice and the bridge between the first and second half of the film, thus linking the heaven and the hell.
When the spacious living room is switched to the narrow corridor of a moving train, the tension has not diminished even slightly. Gondo is ordered to throw away the bags of money via the small window gap from the moving train, and the police could just barely film the process with a handheld camera in an attempt to identify the culprits. After Shinishi is rescued, the film is transitioned to two detectives investigating a phone booth suspected to be used by the kidnapper, the camera then swiftly shift to focus on the garage-floating river with a reflection of a moving figure. The subsequent shots follow the rear of the figure to his living house, with the window directly facing Gondo’s mansion on the top of the hill. Thus the unravel of the face of the kidnapper signifies the beginning of the second section of the film, and the camera is bought from the heaven to the impoverished livelihood.
The second part centers on the police investigation of the kidnapping and the revelation of the identity of the culprit. The investigation, in particular the meeting and presentation of various clues, is meticulously exhibited, step-by-step. in the most authentic way which reminds me of the detective novels by Seicho Matsumoto. The police, intriguing as they are with rich personalities, particularly the bald, bulky looking Detective Taguchi (Kenjiro Ishiyama), are largely devoid of background information. Inspector Tokuro, taking the image of Henry Fonda, is utilised as the extension of spectators’ point of view. His regretful feeling towards Gondo’s downfall and abandonment by the corporation is the direct representation of our emotion. In exchange of his financial decline, Gondo gains the social reputation and sympathy, but even as the main protagonist, his character is mostly faded to background and hardly appeared physically in the second half.
As the investigation continues, the shabby and the filthy side of Japan is disclosed. The bars, junkyard, drug-addicted culminating (portrayed like zombies) alley are toured by following the footsteps of the culprit. Much like the lost gun investigation in Stray Dog (1949) and the Sunday dating between the impoverished couple in One Wonderful Sunday (1947), the narrative offers a scrutiny on the neglected, despicable social field. The contrast between the orderly world of Gondo and the suffering world of Takeuchi would be further emphasised at the final scene in the prison, in which they are separated by glass and wire with the reflection of face overlapping another during conversation. There’s no intention in equalising the two individuals, thus the two social classes, in that final scene, but it represents the moment of “meeting the devil”. On one hand it’s the devil (Takeuchi) bred by jealousy and social injustice, on the other hand it’s the devil (Gondo) of socioeconomic supremacy, even though Gondo’s now dragged down from heaven, he still retains the moral high ground. The glass and wire, as well as the iron gate slid down after the screaming Takeuchi being hauled away by the guards, are the barrier that will perpetually separate Gondo and Takeuchi and the worlds they once lived, either high up in heaven or down in hell.