26 July 2009

TENGOKU TO JIGOKU / HIGH AND LOW (Dir. Akira Kurosawa, 1963, Japan) - ‘Your house looked like heaven, high up there…’

Toshiro Mifune as Kingo Gondo - executive at The National Shoe Company.

It had been a while since I watched a Kurosawa film and I had obviously forgotten how deeply he was involved in the very fabric of the creative process. Released in 1963, ‘High and Low’ has been labelled many things including a suspense drama, film noir, thriller and police procedural. It was the penultimate film collaboration between Mifune and Kurosawa before they sadly went their separate ways – ‘Red Beard’ in 1965 would be their last film, bringing to an end one of the most enriching and creative actor-director collaborations in cinema. Kurosawa’s high point as a film maker was also coming to a close; after ‘Red Beard’, Kurosawa took a five year break, returning in 1970 with his first colour film, ‘Dodes'ka-den’. Arguably, the films Kurosawa made without the presence of Mifune were in many ways just as impressive. Yet it would take Kurosawa nearly two decades with ‘Ran’ in 1985 before he was able to reach the heights of his brilliance as a film maker. The period after ‘Red Beard’ was also one of the darkest (attempted suicide) and most difficult for Kurosawa. Though he was still able to make films, he struggled to attract financing and he no longer had the support of a major Japanese studio like Toho which had been emblematic in his mainstream success as a film maker.

Akira Kurosawa continues to be regarded as the most iconic of Japanese film makers.

One could even argue that ‘High and Low’ was in fact the final masterpiece of Kurosawa’s black and white film career. Taking over one year to shoot, ‘High and Low’, as revealed quite brilliantly in the extras accompanying the Criterion DVD release was an impressively mounted and technically sophisticated film to plan and execute. The finished film was a huge hit and though it received diminutive praise on its release, it has now been reassessed as one of Kurosawa’s masterworks and it’s plain to see why. Not only is ‘High and Low’ a superior crime film, the sprawling narrative and epic scope of the project transforms it into both a gripping analysis of a changing post war Japanese society in the 60s and one of Kurosawa’s finest CinemaScope films. Critics and writing on Kurosawa as an auteur consistently and perhaps most obviously point out his ability to borrow elements from Hollywood cinema. Many would say Kurosawa’s ‘westernised’ sensibilities are what seemed to lay behind the success of his films in both America and Europe. Such a position overlooks the fact Kurosawa’s cinema dealt with themes and ideals which were universal and identifiable in the culture of many nations – his films transcended cultural barriers as they spoke to audiences in a shared and common thematic language.

The first half of the film unfolds in Gondo's mansion.

In ‘High and Low’, thematically and simplistically, the central conflict is between rich and poor. The Japanese title for the film is Tengoku to jigoku,, which literally translates as ‘Heaven and Hell’ – this title seems more appropriate for the differing milieu’s which make up the two distinct halves of the film, whilst ‘High and Low’, the title given to the film for a western audience, works more ideologically to point out the vast inequalities that exist in most societies, not just Japan in the 60s. Nevertheless, Kurosawa loved Hollywood films and had a fond respect for John Ford. So perhaps it is not surprising that the film was a rough adaptation of an American pulp crime novel, ‘King’s Ransom’, written by American Ed McBain. I’m not sure how faithful Kurosawa was to the novel but academics have pointed out that Kurosawa was fascinated by the kidnapping plot. At the time, Kurosawa had expressed his displeasure of the leniency towards kidnapping in Japan as it wasn’t considered a serious crime – such a debate finds its way verbally and visually in to the film’s narrative.

Gondo criticises his wife Reiko for her apparent fixation with materialist trappings.

In addition, Kurosawa’s decision to cast Japanese actor, Tatsuya Nakadai (at the time one of Japanese cinema’s most versatile film actors who had worked with many of the greats) as Chief Detective Tokura was largely motivated by his respect for American actor, Henry Fonda. In the documentary, ‘It’s Wonderful to Create’ which accompanies the film as a DVD extra, actor Tatsuya Nakadai reveals how in their initial meeting, Kurosawa expressed his concerns regarding the absence of Nakadai’s receding hairline. When Nakadai questioned why this was such a concern, Kurosawa explained Henry Fonda’s screen presence was in part recognisable by his receding hair line – Nakadai had to turn up early on set so that his hairline was kept intact. Such a trivial attention to detail illustrates the remarkable precision and exactness with which Kurosawa oversaw the development of his films. Another Toho production, Kurosawa was benefited by the range of technically adept crew the studio had managed to build up over the years – they had some of the finest cameramen, set designers and lighting technicians working anywhere in the world at the time. Tatsuya Nakadai had built up a strong acting reputation and was a favourite of another Japanese film auteur, Masaki Kobayashi. As Mifune and Kurosawa’s relationship was coming to an end, the emergence of Nakadai as a replacement for Mifune seemed to come to fruition in the last phase of Kurosawa’s career as he would feature prominently in a number of films including ‘Ran’. Nakadai and Mifune had contrasting temperaments and performance style; Mifune’s raw, physicality was in direct opposition to the benign, passive Nakadai who seemed to follow in the cinematic tradition of the good looking leading man.

An unconventional police procedural film.

Another and perhaps more obvious genre influence was that of American and European crime films. A new BFI book ‘100 Film Noirs’ by Jim Hillier and Alastair Phillips has gone far as to include ‘High and Low’ as part of their extensive list. Yet the film’s categorisation as noir is debatable as the convention of the doomed noir protagonist is subverted somewhat by Kurosawa choosing to end the film on a genuinely ambiguous note – we are unable to differentiate between Gondo, the righteous capitalist and Takeuchi, the psychotic medical intern turned kidnapper. As a spectator, I would go as far as to say that Kurosawa deliberately blurs the line between the two men so that in affect they become a mirror image. The influence of American police procedural films is felt most significantly in the second half of the film which focuses on the Yokohama police force and the professionalism that must be maintained for them to catch the kidnapper and help revive the misfortunes of Gondo.

Gondo is man of his word and prepared to sacrifice his fortune to maintain his dignity.

Gondo (Mifune) is a wealthy executive of the National Shoe Company. In an effort to seize control of the company, Gondo raises the money by borrowing as much as he can from the banks and putting at risk his entire personal fortune including his sumptuous home which rests exclusively on a hill overlooking Yokohama city. However, a case of mistaken identity results in the kidnapping of the son of Gondo’s chauffeur, Aoki. The demand from Gondo is a hefty ransom for the safe return of Shinichi but such a dilemma results in Gondo having to choose between salvaging his own fortune or the life of the boy. The first half of the film unfolds entirely within one space which is Gondo’s mansion. To maintain dramatic interest and create suspense, Kurosawa decided to film most of this first half in a series of long, exacerbating takes. The theatrical quality of the first half in the mansion is powerfully realised through an extraordinary manipulation of the wide screen frame (the film was shot in the CinemaScope format) whilst tensions and conflicts between characters and ideals are waged through the illuminating use of deep focus cinematography. Apparently, Kurosawa’s decision to use long takes lay behind the idea to sustain a certain intensity on the set – as a result most of the actors were reportedly nervous about making a mistake as this would mean expensive re-shoots. To compensate for the brightness of the natural light which poured in through the windows of the Gondo mansion, Kurosawa had tinted glass specially ordered from England. The longest take lasts for 9 minutes and 5 seconds – this is the kidnapper’s second phone call in which the ransom demands are explicitly stated, leading Gondo to make a final decision. The first half of the film cannot but help recall Hitchcock’s experiment with long takes in ‘Rope’ and Kurosawa is more than likely to have seen ‘Rope’.

Tatsuya Nakadai (far left); the Henry Fonda of Japanese Cinema?

The first half of the film ends with a brilliantly executed sequence on board a train – the Kodoma II Express. The ransom drop sequence was even more complex to film than the difficult long takes in the mansion. Firstly, the location which had been chosen to show the first visual representation of the kidnapper from inside the train was obscured by the roof of a house. After careful negotiations, the roof of the house was taken down, thus allowing filming to resume. Such was the intricacy and expense of this sequence on the train, any major technical difficulties would have meant a severe set back in terms of the shooting schedule. To ensure he had enough coverage, Kurosawa used all eight cameramen at Toho to cover all the action on the train, plus an additional one hundred extras to act as passengers. Multiple cameras filming a sequence from a range of angles had become a familiar Kurosawa strategy as it gave him far greater control and options in the editing phase. Once Gondo makes the drop, Shinichi is returned and thus begins the second half of the film.

This was the penultimate Kurosawa film to be shot in black and white.

At this point in the narrative, most Bollywood films are interrupted by an intermission, but Kurosawa is relentless in how he shifts the action from indoors to outdoors whilst embracing a much more visible documentary style to capture the sickness of the urban milieu of Yokohama. The morality of one man, Gondo, suddenly transforms into something wider and the second half seems more of a critical, if conservative, examination of post war Japan. The transparency of ideological study is also far more evident. Take for example how Kurosawa chooses to open the second half of the film; the kidnapper’s first appearance is signalled by a murky reflection in the water of a canal. However, the documentary in the extras tells us that Kurosawa spent one month on this sequence alone (it hardly lasts for fifteen seconds!) as he was not satisfied with the rubbish in the canal. This shift to the ‘low’ of Yokohama includes the gradual emergence of the kidnapper’s identity but more ideologically, the heroin addicts and the sequence in the drug district of Yokohama acts as a fierce critique of the moral and spiritual collapse of Japanese society.

The 'High' and 'Low' of society.

Humanism is a word that still tends to be strongly associated with the films of Kurosawa. In this case, the world of Gondo - the capitalist and Takeuchi - the impoverished may appear to exist on opposing ends of society but when they come face to face with one another in the final sequence, any idea of an ideological class divide is made invisible by their mutual misunderstanding of the world and its common social illnesses.

'High and Low' has been released on DVD a number of times now but Criterion seems to offer the most comprehensive package by far including an informed commentary track by Stephen Prince who has written extensively on Akira Kurosawa. Here is the trailer for the Criterion DVD of the film:


  1. Ah yes, the final sequence is the icing on the cake... What a wonderful movie... Thanks for the insights....

  2. Apparently, Kurosawa decided to end on this sequence much later when he was editing the film - they actually shot a final-final conventional ending but it was never used.