Saturday, April 7, 2007

High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku)

A glimpse of heaven and hell

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“High and Low” is the English title given to the great Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 film “Tengoku to jigoku” which when translated literally means “Heaven and Earth”. After watching the movie I felt that the Japanese title is more apt for the movie than its English one. Kurosawa showcases the conflicts between the haves and have-nots.

The plot opens with a business executive Kingo Gondo, played by the Kurosawa’s long time muse Toshiro Mifune, engaged in a takeover meeting with his other fellow board of directors of the National Shoe Company. The other directors want Gondo to join them in taking over the company from the hands of the owner referred to as “The old man”. They are not happy with the old man’s way running the business as they want to mass produce low quality cheap shoes. However Gondo is not inclined to do so and want to take the company forward in a totally different direction. He wants to produce good quality modern shoes. The other directors threaten to get him thrown out of the company.

What the directors do not know is that Gondo is on the verge of finalizing a deal that would make him the single largest share holder of the company. To do that, he has put his entire life’s earnings on the line. However just as he is about to settle the deal he gets a phone call where the caller claims to have kidnapped his son. Gondo is horrified and is willing to pay any amount to save his son. But soon he as well as the kidnapper realizes that there has been a mistake and the boy kidnapped is in fact his chauffeur’s son.

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From then on Gondo’s attitude completely changes. While earlier he was unwilling to get the police involved now the first thing that does is to inform them and get them actively involved in the case. He also doesn’t want to pay the money to save someone else’s life. Especially when he knows that he and his family would be financially ruined if he pays the ransom. But Gondo is raked by the pain and sorrow of the boy’s father. He is raked by guilt whenever he sees the boy’s father trying to plead with him to save his son. Gondo is not even able to look into the chaffeur’s eyes. But Gondo doesn’t have much time to decide as he has to make his decision the next day.

High and Low is one of the master’s experiments with narrative. The movie is clearly split into two halves. The first half is all about Gondo’s moral dilemma and his struggle to cling on to both his future as well as his humanity. He knows that he will have to let go of one of them. The second half however deals completely with the police investigation into the case to bring the mastermind to justice. If the first half is a crime thriller which asks pertinent moral questions off the individual, the second half is a detective movie which asks the same questions about the society. Both these halves or acts are interlinked by a train sequence which serves as a bridge between the two worlds.

Without a doubt however the best part of the movie is the first part. Kurosawa masterfully creates the required tension and anxiety in us about the boy’s fate. This keeps us engaged with the whole drama that unfolds from the moment the boy is kidnapped. We feel the chauffeur’s pain. We admire the detective’s professionalism. Above we identify with Gondo’s struggle with himself and his values.


The second half though is not as engaging. You sometimes feel that the movie loses its pace at critical points. The investigation is very realistic giving us an insight into a proper police investigation rather than some fancy detective work. Some might say that it is a bit too realistic. It is shredded of the dramatics and the intelligence that is required to keep an investigation engaging in a movie. Kurosawa attempts to make it as matter of fact as possible.

High and Low shows us another facet of Toshiro Mifune’s acting. He shows his versatility in this movie. Gone are the eccentric and loud mannerisms of his characters of Seven Samurai and Rashomon. Neither is the cool heroism of Yojimbo and The Hidden Fortress on display. Mifune’s Gondo is an exhibition in restrain. He looks like a volcano of emotions ready to explode but barely managing to hold back. His mannerisms clearly indicate what he is going through and leaves no one in doubt about his struggles with himself. He conveys his guilt by never looking at the chauffeur all the while saying that he will not pay the money. There are moments when he can’t even stand the presence of the man close to him.

Kurosawa attempts to show a mirror to the society through High and Low. The movie is indeed set in heaven and Hell. The first half takes place entirely in the air conditioned luxurious villa of Gondo which is set on top of a hill. The second half takes place in the outdoors where people are shown in great discomfort due to the heat, constantly wiping their faces and neck off sweat. He takes us through the slums, whorehouses and drug alleys of Tokyo. The movie asks poignant questions with no easy answers on offer.

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The movie is a showcase in contrast between the haves and have-nots. He even briefly touches upon the evils of corporatization. But what really makes you think is the climax of the movie when Gondo confronts the mastermind of the crime. The mastermind’s motive was as much a rebellion towards the inequalities of the society as it is a personal vendetta against Gondo, symbolized by his hatred towards Gondo’s house on top of the hill. He is not afraid of going to hell as he says his whole life was hell. But if he were to go to heaven, then he would really tremble. The movie is indeed about life in heaven or hell here on earth itself.

Reviews of Akira Kurosawa's Major works

Akira Kurosawa

Rashomon (1950)

Ikiru (1952)

Seven Samurai (1954)

Hidden Fortress (1958)

Yojimbo (1961)

High And Low (1963)

Red Beard (1965)

Kagemusha (1980)

Ran (1985)

Rhapsody In August (1991)

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Nice description of Heaven and Hell! It's amazing what Kurosawa does with this "American Noir" story--makes it Japanese, makes it his.