It Takes a Village: Appraising Life in High & Low

Wrote this a year ago for a writing the essay class. The class sucked but at least I saw this movie.

It Takes a Village: Appraising Life in High & Low

Toshiro Mifune learns from the lions and the tigers, mimicking their movements and channeling their primal impulses into a spontaneous and full-bodied feral energy that dominates each scene. He is most known for his roles as noble ronin. Swordsman. Samurai. In Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, he plays Kingo Gondo — a high-ranking executive looking to take over his shoe company. Even though he has traded in the tattered rags and armor of a noble warrior for a three-piece suit, and the intimate, liberated rural Japanese plains that he usually prowls for a glass mansion on top of the hills, Mifune is no different here. Atop that modernist castle, director Akira Kurosawa challenges him not with the physicality of rival warriors, or the promise of riches and glory, but rather with ambitions of becoming a shoe tycoon and a moral quandary that challenges socially ingrained notions of class.

From the initial phone call informing him that his child had been kidnapped, through his discovery that the criminals had accidentally stolen the wrong child, all the way up until he finally decides to pay the ransom fee and thereby sacrifice his fortune in the process, Mifune’s energy, as well as that of the other players involved, is channeled into an overarching tension that not only works on a cinematic level, but on a sociopolitical front as well. It shows, through tiny interactions just what each of the different classes — low, middle, high — think of each other. (In fact, it almost feels as if this performance is just an extension of the last dozen, as Mifune’s performance narrative takes him through the ranks of bandit (in both Drunken Angel, 1948 and Rashomon, 1950), peasant (Seven Samurai, 1954), industrialist (I Live in Fear, 1955), secretary (The Bad Sleep Well, 1960) and then peasant some more (The Lower Depths, 1957 and The Hidden Fortress, 1958) to finally occupy a more fiscally proficient and powerful profession.) In one of the only sequences in which the film defies Gondo’s privileged presence to those around him, he divulges his former training as a [poor] leatherworker and has his wife hand him his tools before sitting down to outfit a briefcase with a tracking device to the surprised eyes of those around him, standing, for the first time, above him. Such is further proof that every step forward is a simultaneous step backward — an idea rooted in the requisite of risk for reward exemplified in the haste with which his wife brings him his tools, implying their everlasting close proximity to him through the years — that makes Mifune’s Gondo exceedingly sympathetic to lower classes. His roots in poverty are further exemplified by the simple conflict that opens the film, in which he argues against the cheaper but lower quality shoes that the other executives intend to bring in. Soon enough, the rugged lead detective, raised from rags and the first to admit that he “wastes no love on the rich”, comes to agree with another detective that “that Gondo is alright.”

Despite the omnipresence of class hierarchy, Kurosawa posits that success is really more individualist and dependent on how a person acts out their duty, with a single line from Gondo’s wife that evidently impacts his choices throughout the film: “Success isn’t worth losing your humanity”. With this in mind, Kurosawa’s individualist tendencies are complicated, and it becomes evident that his ideal individual is more complex than somebody with just themselves on their mind, but rather, one who recognizes the people and expectations around him. He sets out ensuring to open his audience’s eyes to all of the matter’s participants, even if by the end when everything is resolved, the newspapers only care to lionize Gondo. Such attention lent to the effects of everybody else’s involvement proves a powerful point about social hierarchy, exposing its existence and criticizing those who sit and hide at the top, while also proving its importance in establishing norms within a society. The police initially only help because it is their duty, and the higher class, as shown through Gondo’s need for constant assistance through driver and secretary in the first place, is reliant on lower classes to continue to persist.

Only when all groups of Japanese society, including the generally ignored women and children, are unified, is he able to both keep his morality intact and succeed at the end. After all, it is the children who first notice the pink smoke, and the kidnapped child who remembers the specific details of his kidnapping, backtracking with his father against the wishes of the police, who recommend they sit in place and let them handle it to be safe. And the police and the various detectives who risk their lives undercover on floor level, dressed up in rags like the denizens of the city beneath, scouting out leads and trying their hardest to help return Gondo’s wealth. And media, who manipulate their headlines in order to further help the search.

Whereas in the crime-thriller genre or the kidnapping subgenre, protagonists find themselves all alone save for their enemies, defying all odds to invoke justice, High and Low pushes its “hero” down and keeps him mostly helpless to change anything, in spite of his power and reputation. This is especially surprising when one realizes that the novel that the film is adapted from, a short, pulpy American mystery named King’s Ransom by Ed McBain as part of the larger 87th Precinct Series, falls almost entirely into the aforementioned tropes — focusing on the detective as he almost single-handedly solves the kidnapping. By revising the setting and shifting the focus, he is able to properly reproduce modern Japan on the screen, turning a simple, conceptually strong mystery into a full-scale barrage on the society he lives in.

But just as some of Kurosawa’s other works are rooted in European culture (his numerous Shakespeare or other literary adaptations stand testament to that), one is able to sort of see the influence of Diego Velazquez’s 1656 painting, Las Meninas, in the on-screen formations of Kurosawa’s characters. The seminal work provides an overwhelming amount of different perspectives and focal points and forces the viewer to consider all of them completely, causing darting eyes to feed a curiosity that examines every inch of the screen, leading to a more substantiated and nuanced understanding of the scene as a whole.

Compare this concept to the theatrical stylizations of Kurosawa, who turns screen space into a visual metaphor for class hierarchy in the film, effortlessly weaving his characters so that they stand out relative to each other, but also, manipulating eyelines to, as he ever so loves to point out, create complex individuals. Structurally, the film is evocative to its English title; it spends its first hour in the “high”, uniting three different classes in a glass mansion on the hills, but denying them equality. And any iteration of movement and blocking reminds us so: after the kidnapper calls and questions the now-drawn living room blinds, Gondo is required to open them, standing tall for the world to see, and purveying the surrounding landscape and thereby opening his eyes for the first time while the detectives are forced to hide under the table out of sight; he remains firm even as he looks away from his bowing chauffeur, when he agrees to pay the ransom and the detectives take a seat and look away in discomfort. Scenes like this translate the class discrepancies even more literally; occasionally, as is the case with the latter of the two examples, Kurosawa divides the screen into three sections, creating a vertical triptych that separates from bottom to top “low-middle-high”. As his characters discuss the comparatively simple issue of morality in decision making, Kurosawa’s camera emphasizes its own subtext: What is the value of a human life? And does that life’s position on the social ladder influence anything?

“I know how much this money means to you, but a human life means more,” interrupts Kawanishi, Gondo’s conniving secretary.

“Save the child first, then catch the kidnapper,” prioritizes the chief detective, and so the second half of the film — bridged by a rapid-paced train sequence in which Gondo exchanges money for the child — takes place primarily on ground-level — the “low”. After this small excursion, in which the outside world is only briefly seen, Gondo is preserved, squared off safely in the house that taunts the foggy and industrialized lower quadrants of Japan, where envy boils over into a rage. The audience, now following the detectives tasked with finding the money, quickly find themselves in a widely different setting.

Rigidity motivates a majority of the movie, as precise and calculated movements map out the space on the screen. Such rigidity echoes the unflappable nature of Japanese tradition, which tends to disavow women and children and keep things in its place. This is the case primarily in the scenes cloaked in wealth or bureaucracy as actors move simultaneously to new positions with a theatrical air, spinning the aforementioned cold and precise visual metaphor which corrals by class. In the police station, the characters move like waves, turning their heads in full synchronicity and foregoing any sense of individuality. In Gondo’s mansion, the characters move alongside the other members of their classes, sitting down together, and reacting simultaneously. In one scene, the driver Aoki runs back into the room with a drawing that his son made of the kidnapper. He bows his head and speaks, as the camera rests behind the two detectives whom, even while sitting occupy a majority of the screen. He moves forward, growing larger in size, before the two detectives rise, towering over him as they prohibit him from assuming any more power in the scene.

They are all interrupted by the kids in deep focus, who announce the presence of color right outside the window in the otherwise black and white world.

When pink smoke bursts out from the junkyard chimney below, sending those players formally standing and pontificating above into chaos, it is surprising for two reasons aside from its obvious narrative function. First, it is the only instance of color in an otherwise black and white movie and a reminder of the value of monochrome visuals, evinced when taken into consideration that in 1963 when the movie was released, color was already widely used technology. Second, it is an astounding scene of spontaneity and random movement for once. One can’t help feel exhilarated as the remains of the destitute and poor float from high to low, towards the all-encompassing sky, shared by members of all classes. If the train indicates the beginning of the second act, this scene, which again unites the two regions, marks the start of the third.

Soon after, Kurosawa contradicts the stiffness of the “high” scenes a second time, when he portrays the “dance of death” of the heroin junkie: a slow but completely raw and unpredictable flurry of drawn-out movement that leads to eventual collapse. Wealth and order are contradicted by industry and the unpredictable chaos of the lower quadrants of the city. The English title is apt but does not properly translate the more drastic Japanese title of the film. It is Tengoku to Jigoku, which translates to “Heaven and Hell”.  This is Kurosawa’s hell.

Eventually, we are introduced to the villain: medical student Takeuchi who lurks in shadows and bushes like a Western film antagonist and wears black sunglasses as if to reflect the crude world around him. In the powerful denouement, Gondo travels through the underworld to question him before his death sentence, stooping low for the first time. They look at each other through the similarly reflective glass, both standing eye to eye, before sitting down in unison, defying that visual motif that gives Gondo a physical dominance over his “subjects”. As they move, however, the reflection of the glass draws an odd comparison, as their faces are transposed onto each others’. The conversation is terse but impactful, as Takeuchi reveals his motivations: “from my tiny room, your house looked like heaven”. Kurosawa points the camera at each man individually, yet both faces appear on the screen, reflected onto the glass; perhaps they aren’t so different after all and Kurosawa is implying the insignificance of class, that a man’s worth is way more subjective. Or perhaps he is further illuminating the universal dangers of envy by showing two men, separated by region, reflections of themselves. Takeuchi soon after devolves into a fit of hysteria, and slams his head into his lap, gripping it with his hands in pain, making another bowing motion to the unflinching Gondo, before quickly bursting out of his seat, letting out a visceral scream. Before he can get settled, the guards pull him away and close the blinds, leaving Gondo with his power still remaining, staring back at his own reflection.

The film ends on this powerful scene, with Gondo completely alone for the first time. In a film that reaches its dramatic heft in how it defines each character by placing the other characters in relation, the silence and solitary within this final moment are almost painful. With nobody around Gondo to draw visual comparisons to, Kurosawa’s final message carries with it a heavier impact: class is both necessary and a trivial concept, and only exists in itself if at all.

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