High and Low (Heaven and Hell) Akira Kurosawa (Japan 1963) Toshiro Mifune Viewed Tyneside Cinema 20th May 2017; ticket £9.75
An ethical question with a metaphysical structure and a judgement coda
Kurosawa’s High and Low is a transposed Samurai genre movie. In a similar manner to Kurosawa’s Samurai movies a core ethical question is posed to its protagonists. As in the Seven Samurai, Kurosawa informs High and Low with a metaphysical structure that encodes the response to the question.
The use of structure as metaphysical device was more common when scripting and building scenario were the heart of filmmaking. Clouzot’s ‘Wages of Fear’ comes to mind as a movie shaped by a governing metaphysic. In today’s film making, script and scenario are subservient to image and stylistic considerations, and the dominant influences shaping the form of productions are the advert and the installation. Today the idea of a filmic structure shaped by metaphysics or ethics is alien as it means ‘idea’ has to be directive; a discipline of soul alien to the accustomed indulgence of either filmmaker or audience.
High and Low is a continuation of Kurosawa’s filmic dialogue with Japan and the the problem that her identity and culture faced in the 50’s and 60’s caught in the strain of the opposing pull of American defined modernism, and the push of its own traditional identity.
Kurosawa’s understanding of his country was mediated by the belief that the disaster of twentieth century Japanese expansion, with all its terrible consequences for Asia and Japan, was caused by its rigid military and political hierarchy. Kurosawa’s vision of Japan was located in the wisdom of its people as collectivities, and the claims collective could make upon the individual. I suppose the American idea, the Thatcherite notion is that the individual owes nothing to the social body outside of the immediate claims made by the family. The American Way’s values the rights of individuals above those of communities. Not so Kurosawa’s Japan.
The critical juncture in High and Low comes when Gondo realises that it is not his son who has been kidnapped, but his chauffeur’s boy. At this point the kidnapper does not drop his ransom but demands Gondo pay the money anyway. Gondo wrestles with his soul as to what he should do. The decision is his. Does Gondo play for himself alone and refuse to pay; or does he choose to affirm that he is a part of a greater whole? Gondo’s decision affirms the collective, the Samurai spirit of Japan as he elects to pay out the full ransom for the son of his chauffeur.
As Gondo choses the path of self denial the structure of the film blossoms like a flower. The first hour of the film has been set in the lounge of Gondo’s house on the hill. His American style residence that acts as a vulgar beacon for conspicuous consumption. The lounge interior is large open plan space, monotextural, painted in muted tones furnished with American armchairs and sofas. Plush. A space alien to Japan.
As soon as Gondo decides to play for the collective the movie leaves the dead Western interior and opens out into Japan. High and Low which has been imprisoned and contained within walls that to the soul are like a prison, explodes into the Japanese psyche. A metaphysical shift.
As the movie opens out, Japan and her people are revealed. A series of cameos shows the working people of Tokyo; and the police are seen as an organic body, like social insects working, together to find the criminal. Unlike American cop movies there are no stars, no stand out cops, only work to be done by the multiple body of agents.
The kidnapper when he is eventually caught seems less motivated by the gain than by resentment at the symbolic nature of Gondo’s house: its flaunting of a life style. There is an element here in which as Kurosawa’s movie reaches its climax, it becomes a judgement machine not a chart of an ethical field. It is valid for Kurosawa to believe in and to point to Japanese culture as having the potential to redeem past mistakes and to provide a new basis for democratic stability. It is less valid for him to blame all negative aspects of contemporary Japanese culture on American corruption.
The unravelling of High and Low’s plot involves the introduction of heroine as a corrupting influence on Japanese people. Kurosawa’s makes it clear that hard drugs and their use by young people are an imported American evil. His depiction of drug dens and drug use rivals the ridiculous public health screeners made by Hollywood in the 1950’s. Kurosawa undermines his stature as a film maker by resorting to the same hackneyed inaccurate depictions. By 1963 Kurosawa surely had to understand that Japan could not return to her isolationist past. Japan was part of the modern world, an all it implied: automobile production, consumer products, technology such as that used by the police. For all that Kurosawa believed in the resilience of her culture, Japan could not avoid ALL the forces of individuation alienation and anomie that are the handmaidens of high Capitalist economies.
Drug taking was a problem endemic to developing conditions in Japanese society. Kurosawa might finish his movie by scripting Gondo to leave the large American style shoe company he worked for as an executive, and set up his own small company making quality Japanese shoes. But Kurosawa as a film maker seems to have turned his back on the actual forces shaping Japanese life: the evolution of large home based multi-national corporations. And all the consequences that such development entailed. adrin neatrour firstname.lastname@example.org