Are there cultural purists still remaining who would argue that the “Westernized” title of Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 masterpiece—High and Low—throws polluted water on the cosmological fire of its given name: Tengoku to jigoku—literally, Heaven and Hell?
Kurosawa’s once insisted-upon reputation as Japan’s most “Western” filmmaker aside, the director whose go-for-baroque Rashomon decisivelyopened international eyes to Japanese filmmaking was rarely shy about his American tar-pit pleasures—even if he demurred from acknowledgingYojimbo’s suspicious indebtedness to Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. Highand Low, as its credits admit, was adapted from a long-forgotten pulp policier titled King’s Ransom, one in a series of “87th Precinct” novels written by Evan Hunter under the nom de potboiler-maker “Ed McBain.”
Building on the whirlingly Wellesian The Bad Sleep Well—Kurosawa’sprevious modern-dress meditation on narrative fragmentation and moral decay—High and Low makes good on its title by grooving on twitchy, tawdryrock n' roll, painstakingly ladling sewage on Schubert’s “Trout” quintet, and intensifying the climax of its murder investigation with a rinky-tink radio broadcast of “It’s Now or Never.” Purists still unimpressed by these cultural interpolations might at least be thankful that the film wasn’t titled The Devil Wears Mirrored Shades.
That is, after all, what the film’s villain, Takeuchi (an aspiring Satan trapped in the scarred body and tormented soul of an impoverished medical student), sports during the film’s climactic episode. Or rather, during one of its many climaxes, as High and Low is a thriller flush with needle-spiking tensions and bullet-train exhilarations.
An anti-Narcissus adrift in a narcotic-saturated, discotheque-driven nightworld, the mirror-shaded Takeuchi (played by Tsutomu Yamazaki, whomatured into the Gregory Peck-ish star of Juzo Itami’s Tampopo) has developed a diabolical obsession. He longs to reflect the charred chaos ofmodern Japan’s lower depths back into the face of the most successful manhe can find. As he gazes out the window of his stifling, three-tatami Hell—deep somewhere in Yokohama’s summer cauldron—Takeuchi has little difficulty in locating a celestial fortress from which to bring a flourishing sky king low.
His target-on-high: a self-made footwear magnate crowned Kingo Gondo, theindestructible shank in the sole of the National Shoes company.
As furrowed forth by a ferociously contained Toshiro Mifune, Gondo may live in the proverbial house on the hill—an impeccably emptied-out mansion that seems to look imperiously down on the entire city below—but he remains a man rooted in a humble, hands-on past. “Shoes carry the weight of the whole body,” Gondo huffs early on, denouncing the shoddy pumps hisprofits-over-quality corporate partners intend to bring to market. A well heeled exec with one foot in the past (he still keeps his shoe-repair tools within easy reach), Gondo thinks he’s already one step ahead: He’s made plans to outmaneuver the company takeover his partners are about to attempt.
What Gondo can’t foresee is Takeuchi’s plan to stamp on his toes with aplot to kidnap Gondo’s son and demand a ruinous, king(o)’s ransom. Theplan goes through, but when the gambit hits a minor snag—Takeuchi’s henchmen nab Gondo’s chauffeur’s son by mistake—he demands the ransom anyway, setting in motion a moral dilemma worthy of Kingo Solomon. Should Gondo pay the ransom and save a child not his, at the expense of losing his company and heavily-mortgaged home? Or sacrifice the child and save his position, high on that hill, while his hardened soul plummets into the mirror-world below?
The existing literature is rich with praise for High and Low’s screw-tightening first hour, as Gondo, a group of zealous cops, and Kurosawa’s anamorphic lens remain locked in the mansion’s living room, fielding the kidnapper’s phoned-in demands. It’s an astonishing episode, built on elaborate permutations of group- and individual-formation, mixing two-shots and seven-shots into icy cameos and exponentially enervated group portraits. But once it shifts into its investigatory second hour, the film’s true flowers unfold. Textures of groups of men in motion alternate with hyper-detailed sequences of evidence-analysis that suggest the scrutiny of Abraham Zapruder’s contemporaneous 8mm footage from Dallas. And Chez Gondo, once seen from Takeuchi’s vantage, begins to assume Psycho proportions. Clues mount, attitudes and directions change, and finally an astonishing plume of crimson-pink smoke signals an opening into the pit—welcoming the viewer as Kurosawa’s camera plunges in.
Behold, at last, the Low: a sordid sin-market filled with mixed-race couples and manic frugging, squabbling sailors and cat-eyed slatterns, ravaged junk-zombies and undercover cops from Hell. Here, talk is useless and chaos holds supreme, and in all of Kurosawa’s filmmaking, there is nothing else quite so chaotic and obscene.
What could have ignited this blackened gust? Was this, perhaps, the soon-to-fade master’s furious reply to the go-go nihilism of the then-rising Japanese nouvelle vague? A bitter, full-blast bettering of the Noh-exit excesses of early Oshima’s Japan-as-buried-sun and the still-to-come cartoon cruelty of the “incomprehensible” Seijun Suzuki? And is Takeuchi’s admission, shortly before High and Low’s metallic closing curtain bangs shut—”I’m not interested in self-analysis”—Kurosawa’s last word on his long-held passion, the heroism of the individual?
The answers are here, if forged in a climax—as befits the film’s precipitous reversals of fortune and exalted failures—hidden in plain sight somewhere well before The End. High on a hill overlooking modernity’s inferno, Kingo Gondo wears the imperial robe of the economic miracle: a well-starched dress shirt and beneath, a clinging tee. And on that robe Kurosawa paints in stinging brushstrokes an image as stubbornly resigned to toil as any in modern cinema. The lapsed millionaire, his body covered in salty Rorschach blots, pushes his own lawnmower, determined to slay the weeds that claw ever upward from below. Weeds that threaten to choke the well-manicured lawns and far-from-Zen turf-gardens of postwar Japan’s altogether earthly domain.
Chuck Stephens writes for the San Francisco Bay Guardian, the L.A. Weekly, and the Village Voice. He is also a frequent contributor to Film Comment.