Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike has directed more than a hundred features, and almost three decades into his career he’s showing no signs of slowing down. Throughout his ferocious, often controversial body of work, he has contorted disparate genres into extreme portraits of violence and chaos, and his latest film, First Love, extends that tradition: it’s a hyper-stylized yakuza noir set over the course of one night on the streets of Tokyo. During a recent visit to the Criterion offices, Miike talked with us about one of the filmmakers who first got him excited about cinema, Akira Kurosawa, whose work he discovered on television as a boy growing up in Osaka. In this article, edited together from our conversation, Miike explains why he feels a kinship with Kurosawa and how the master’s 1963 film High and Low slyly melds classic suspense with trenchant social commentary.
The memories I have connected with the time in my life when I saw High and Low are very important to me. What was special about seeing it for the first time was that there were some parallels between the filming locations and where I lived. I didn’t have much money and couldn’t afford the film school in Osaka, where I was born and raised, so I ended up moving to Yokohama, where there was a school I could afford. High and Low had been filmed years before I moved there, and the locations no longer existed, but it takes place in that city. So when we get to the point when we see where the criminal is living, I thought, that’s my town! Realizing that I’d ended up moving where all this took place was a very shocking moment for me.
I was three years old when the film was released in 1963. Japan had lost the war a couple decades earlier, Tokyo was still in ruins right before then, and the Korean War had also just started. People had to come back from less than zero, because the country had been destroyed by World War II. But it wasn’t too long before Japan enjoyed a sudden economic rise—partly due to U.S. policy but also because of the success of the film industry. Before this period, you wouldn’t have seen poverty or anything negative on screens; film and TV were very insular. But then there was a switch that flipped, and a decision was made to use entertainment as a vehicle to encourage and motivate Japanese people to work together. This had a role in pulling up the Japanese spirit, and during that time Japanese cinema reached a peak. Kurosawa’s role in all of that is absolutely undeniable. There isn’t a filmmaker from Japan who has not been influenced by his work.
At the start of High and Low, an executive named Kingo Gondo, played by Toshiro Mifune, is living high on the hog in a house on a hill. We learn that he started as an employee of a shoemaking company but that he’s very good at what he does, so they put him in charge of the factories. Eventually he realizes that if he can purchase a certain amount of stocks, he’ll become the majority shareholder for the company and then the owner and president. Gondo is in the middle of some shady dealings to get the stocks when he receives a call from a man saying that he’s taken his son and must pay 30 million yen ($300,000) to get him back. Gondo has the money but knows that if he ends up paying he’ll lose the chance to become the majority shareholder—it will be a big disaster, and everyone will know about his scheme to become the company owner.
As it turns out, the kidnapper has mistakenly taken the son of Gondo’s chauffeur, so Gondo has to make a decision about whether he’s going to lose everything to help his employee, someone he feels no personal connection to. This becomes the crux of the film, and a way for Kurosawa to contrast privilege with poverty and economic disparity.
When I first saw the movie, I was completely obsessed and taken aback by the last scene, which is set in the prison where the kidnapper is waiting on death row. In Japan, we have Buddhist priests who will go into prisons and perform some ceremony or meditation with people who are going to be executed, to calm them and help them overcome the fear of death. But here, the kidnapper rejects that and asks to meet Gondo, who has found a new job and is once again in a promising situation.
Part of me wonders what circumstances inmates like the kidnapper were born into, what their lives were like, and what they were thinking. In a typical film you would have a bit more montage in this scene, or the director would do something interesting to create the vibe of the prison, but Kurosawa doesn’t do that. He just gives us a simple conversation with two people talking.
The kidnapper basically tells Gondo that he wants to die without being afraid of his own eternal fate, without fear. He wants to talk to Gondo so that he won’t have any regrets at his death. But then he starts shaking violently and suddenly a shutter comes down between them and their whole conversation is cut off. There is no execution scene, but we understand that that’s the end for him.
High and Low wasn’t supposed to end this way—in the original script, there was a scene with Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai (who plays the detective whom Gondo befriends over the course of the case) taking a walk together. After they filmed the scene in the prison, though, Kurosawa realized that Tsutomu Yamazaki’s performance as the kidnapper was so strong, and he changed his whole plan for the ending because of that. If you study Kurosawa’s filmmaking, you see that he had tons of scripts for the same film. There was never a right answer. It wasn’t like: this is the story, this is the conclusion, and we’re going to make a movie about that. He was exploring the idea of the truth and what the real answers were while he was making the film.
What’s interesting about this last scene is that Kurosawa would normally have shown the kidnapper’s motive; that’s what’s expected, so the audience can feel good about the message of the film. But Kurosawa decided to not even go there. Instead of presenting some revelation of the motive as part of the movie, he just decided that the kidnapper is human and therefore makes mistakes and commits some crimes. The details are left out. Instead of demonizing him, Kurosawa ends up saying that the man was just trying to live, and we don’t know the reason why he did this, and that’s it.