High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku)

High and Low

These people with their kidnapping and shoe fixations...


dir: Akira Kurosawa

It seems pointless to praise a fifty-year-old film, 57 actually, at the time of writing, and to praise a film made by a highly praised director, in the shape of Japanese titan Akira Kurosawa.

Pointless has never stopped me before. In fact, pointless defines certain aspects of my more faux-artistic pursuits, so, if anything, writing a review of this strong film is amongst the most important things I’ll ever do today.

High and Low is a very familiar story: rich bastard protagonist, kidnappers kidnap a child, police get involved, and we wonder if the child will be saved and the criminals will get their comeuppance. But it’s made so long ago, and in such a calm, unhurried way, that it reinvigorates the elements themselves, making them seem so fresh even to people (like myself) utterly burned out on crime, police procedurals and mystery crap of this nature.

It’s based on an Ed McBain novel, but obviously the action has been transposed to Tokyo from the States. This isn’t a problem, since everything Kurosawa ever did was based on almost exclusively on non-Japanese texts. He makes it his own like he did with everything he ever stole from Dashiell Hammet, Shakespeare, Maxim Gorky, and George Lucas.

Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune, a regular feature of Kurosawa flicks), is a wealthy industrialist who lives in a square house on top of a hill that looks down upon a slum as one’s glance travels down to the sea. He is, in this, like Mifune is in everything, a gruff, blunt character who doesn’t so much talk as bark. Even before the plot kicks in, he argues with greedy executives, with his assistant, and his demure wife, like he’s a feudal lord, and they should feel honoured if all he allowed them was to lick the rice from his sandals.

This is par for the course, but the film provides twists on his character that are quite the revelation. Gondo may be brusque, but he’s an honourable man, at least in his own mind. He believes it’s his obligation, as one of the high-ups at National Shoes, to make the best shoes possible as a point of honour, and he is unswayed by the arguments of the grubby co-execs who argue that during a sales slump, they should be making crappy shoes that fall apart within hours, thus compelling the ladies to shell out for another pair.

I can see the flaw in this brilliant plan, as does Gondo, but the other execs don’t, because they’ve absorbed too many American manufacturing theories post losing that fateful war. They just want to get their financial end in, so to speak, and are happy to destroy the company’s primary product and the company itself (still currently in the hands of the Old Man, as they refer to him as). Gondo wants nothing to do with this, and takes a risky step to secure his control over the organisation.

The early part of the film transpires, even after the central ‘crime’ is committed, in the living area of Gondo’s palatial mansion. It gives this bit of the flick the feeling of a one-room play. It’s all it really needs, though, at least at first, because there’s virtually no difference between this and a feudal court drama (except for the dialogue, of course). It makes it all the more compelling when the story is forced to travel outside of the ‘castle’.

Gondo’s house plays as much a role in the plot as almost anyone else. It sits, according to some of the police having a gabble, like a provocation itself, proclaiming the owner’s wonderfulness to the poor people living in its shadow in the squalor at castle’s base. It taunts the antagonist, almost, into committing his crime.

A boy is snatched from the mansion, and they are only informed of this when a man who can clearly see the place from his vantage point, calls Gondo to tell him he’s nabbed his son.

Naturally the feudal lord goes berserk when his sole heir is taken. He takes seriously the kidnapper’s threat to not go to the police to safeguard his son’s life. He trembles and rages, trying to figure out what to do.

But it’s not his son. The nappers have take Gondo’s chauffer’s son instead, by mistake.

Naturally, the second Gondo figures this out, he goes straight to the cops.

It’s a perhaps unintentionally funny scene. What happens next occurs in two broad and unhurried parts, as the police try to facilitate the handover of the ransom, promising Gondo, whom they treat with the requisite amount of obeisance, doing all but bow and scrape, that they’ll get the money back if they can. The next part follows the police trying to track down the arsehole who set everything in motion, using the most meticulous and painstaking old-school police investigation techniques you can think of.

Gondo is torn, initially between saving the business he wants to take over, and weighing up the worth of another man’s son. Even his chauffer tells him not to pay the ransom, out of loyalty to his employer. Imagine a culture where someone would feel, out of honour, dutybound to say to someone, “No, it’d be better if you kept the money and let my kid die.”

Kingo Gondo, aptly named, considers not paying for a while. He has the money demanded, something like 30 million yen, but it will leave him at the mercy of his enemies, and probably finish him off at his beloved shoe factory permanently. And, in the most likely result, if the money is never tracked down by the cops, he’d be broke as well, just another one of the hoi polloi eking out a meagre existence at the foot of his former castle.

In the end, he makes a choice, and has to live with it, because his decency and his continued good fortune as a magnate aren’t necessarily going to be able to coexist.

The police take over from here, trying desperately to follow the demands of the kidnappers to the letter whilst trying to ensure that they get enough information about the crims in order to track them down later. The kidnapper, however, is a very intelligent man, and almost pulls everything off in a way that would guarantee finding out his identity is next to impossible. The handover is meant to occur on a bullet train, travelling at such speed that getting off at will, or even seeing the person the cash is going to go to, is nigh on impossible.
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Incredibly thorough detail goes into every aspect of the police’s attempts to figure things out. Most of the flick has already run through the projector before we even get to see the perpetrator.

It’s all consummately well done, and downright fascinating in some ways, to see a police procedural where people aren’t saying ludicrous stuff and taking the laziest, easiest shortcuts by fabricating the limits of forensic technology, “Oh yes, well, the murderer was clearly So-and-so Schneedly because this eyelash picked up a molecule of penguin fart while it was floating through the zoo on its way to a strip club where the stripper in question ground it onto the pole, to be picked up by this Moldavian cleaner whose unique muskiness could only point to…” There’s a place for that kind of thing, and it’s not on a tv or cinema screen that I’m watching. Other people love that CSI crap, but I can honestly tell you, as if you care, that it’s not my bag.

I have far more interest in something like this, which makes pre-computer technology solutions to police problems seem like an impossible Rubik’s cube puzzle that’s the size of a city. That being said, the police procedural stuff occurs at a pace some contemporary audiences might find horrifyingly slow. It might make them want to yank their edit-and-car-crash-every-two-seconds-craving eyes out.

As well as the obvious class elements to the story, which Kurosawa doesn’t ignore, but treats with some measure of subtlety, there’s also a trawl through the drug underworld and club district worthy of William S. Burroughs or Charles Bukowski. There’s the fascinating hell our antagonist has to go through in order to score some drugs, and the elaborate lengths he goes to in order to test out its potency. It’s interesting to see something like this in a Japanese film, and especially in a Japanese film from after the war.

It’s hard to ignore the big galoot American soldiers and sailors in the nightclub scene in their uniforms, doing the twist again, like they did last summer. Not only is it a hideously unsexy dance, but they perform it with such passion with those meaty Japanese girls. Good times…

From the surreal to the ridiculous, there is a scene so “Say No to Drugs, gaki” that it’s laugh out loud funny. The depiction of drug addicts in this flick has to be seen to be believed. I can’t say that I’m an expert on post-World War II heroin or morphine addiction in Japan, or that I’ve ever given it any thought. What I can pretty much guarantee is that whatever it was actually like, it didn’t look like a bunch of people standing around in an alley dressed like the cheapest Halloween zombies you’ve ever scene. They start clutching each other and our undercover cops on the kidnapper’s tail, hoping for money or drugs, but they might as well have been moaning “braaaaains…” with that most delightful of Japanese accents for all its credibility was worth.

The film ends on a perfect note, as Gondo and the man who tried to ruin his life out of envy, come face to face. For once in his life, Toshiro Mifune underplays the scene, which is a tremendous blessing, considering the career he made from overacting, but the other guy goes bugfuckingly insane, which probably reassured audiences back in the day that justice was served, and that people like this are really more motivated by madness rather than malice. But it’s still a necessary scene, and it caps off this most remarkable of cops and robbers flick. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it to someone just for its own sake, but if someone was a bit of a Kurosawa fan, and mostly for his samurai flicks or the epics like Ran, and thought something like this wouldn’t be that interesting, then think again, gaijin. It’s a beautiful flick.

9 times I wonder how they managed that brief flash of colour in an otherwise entirely black-and-white flick out of 10

“Your house looked like heaven, high up there. That's how I began to hate you.” – envy will get you nowhere, unless you’ve got a role on reality tv - High and Low.