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High and Low (Akira Kurosawa) 1963


    The original Japanese title of Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low translates directly into “Heaven and Hell”, but the change marks one of the rare times where an Americanization of the original title is actually an improvement over the original. There’s no doubt that there’s a dichotomy set up in the film that separates the film into two parts. First, we see the moral dilemma faced by Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), a wealthy executive, after he’s forced to choose between paying the ransom to rescue his chauffeur’s kidnapped son and staging a hostile takeover of the company that he’s helped build. From his lofty home on a hill that overlooks Tokyo’s slums, Gondo has become an object deemed worthy of the insane jealousy of a destitute and desperate lowlife. Midway through the film, after the police become involved, there is a slightly-botched handoff that takes the boy out of the picture and the focus of the film shifts from Gondo’s crisis to that of the police who track the rabid dog of a criminal through the city’s slums. If Gondo’s penthouse is symbolically meant to be heaven and the crime-ridden slums are meant to be hell, you can’t help but think that that allegorical assessment is a bit too straightforward. Kurosawa’s class politics are almost always on display in his films, but usually they aren’t reduced to such completely definitive terms.


    The original title leads you to believe there’s little that’s ambiguous in High and Low’s class structure, but the film itself is slightly more ambivalent about their differences (at least until the final speech, which suggests the point of view might be simplistic after all). Certainly the opening scenes of the film, in which Gordo’s financial predicament is set up paints the supposedly legitimate businessmen as dastardly thugs who are just as scheming as the kidnapper. When Gordo himself goes home and finds out about the kidnapping, we can’t quite guess what his reaction will be since the opening scenes were complexly layered. These early scenes are by far the most interesting in the film since the technique that Kurosawa employs in them is designed to show the range of feeling present in each victim of the crime. Using a master shot for several masterful camera setups, he shows most of cast on-screen at once, in varying levels of agony. Each character, from Gordo’s wife, who urges her husband to give up the money, but has never considered the poverty that it will bring, to his assistant, who advises him of the pressing nature of his stock purchase. It’s almost disappointing when the film moves on from this point, since there’s enough rich material in the setup to fill an entire movie.


    High and Low eventually comes off its perch and descends into the muck of real life, but the results are disappointing. Most of the running time after the money is handed off is spent showing us the police work used to track down the kidnapper, but those scenes don’t satisfy, since they’re presented matter-of-factly with all suspense drained from them. Instead of having a boy’s life at stake as the early scenes did, the latter scenes only have the police department’s attempts to bring a man to justice driving them, and are far less involving as a result. Even if the second half, and especially the last half hour, of the film plays like a descent into a criminally depraved hell, it doesn’t work thematically. As impressively conceived as the heroin dens, juke joints, and whorehouses that we see are (though there’s an even better juke joint sequence in Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel), they don’t have much dramatic function since Kurosawa’s script wasn’t structured so that we really got a glimpse of “heaven”. I prefer the title High and Low to Heaven and Hell precisely because it doesn’t suggest that the “highs” and “lows” take place within any specific locale, but rather within each individual. The movie begins asking what it is that makes someone move to a breaking point where they can commit horrible crimes, and to blame environment entirely seems far too easy. Since Kurosawa can’t make us believe that the world that High and Low takes place is real, as opposed to a writer’s construction, the pessimism that dominates the film becomes an oppressive turn-off. He wants to make a bold statement about capitalism’s tendency to transform the world into a place where kindness, decency, and integrity have no place, but mostly he ends up sounding cantankerous this time out.


* *  


Jeremy Heilman