Friday, February 17, 2012

High and Low (Tengoku to Jigoku)

Every once in a great while, one has that feeling while watching a movie that they are watching one of the best movies they have ever seen. It's a thrill, and naturally, the older I get and the more movies I see, the less frequently I experience this rush. But as luck would have it, there are still a whole bunch of Akira Kurosawa movies out there that I have yet to watch.

High and Low, my eighth Kurosawa film, and the first I've seen set in the present day (1963, that is), is many different films at once. A kidnap thriller, a police procedural, a morality tale, and an examination of class disparity, and it's all filled with the same compassion and humanity that Akira Kurosawa brought to everything he made.

The story opens with Gondo (the legendary Toshiro Mifune), an executive for a shoe company, who is poised to take over the company and oust the other men on the board, who want to make cheaper shoes and charge more money for them. After a meeting with these men goes sour, he gets a telephone call, where an unknown voice tells him that his son has been kidnapped and demands a ransom of 30 million Yen. It quickly becomes apparent that it was not his son that was kidnapped, but rather the son of his chauffeur. The kidnapper tells Gondo that he must pay the ransom anyway, and Gondo must now come to the decision: must he give up his entire fortune for another man's son?

The first hour of the movie is almost like a play, the drama rarely leaving Gondo's home. What is truly amazing about this first hour is the way it's shot. Kurosawa uses long takes, sometimes 5 minutes or more, each shot carefully composed to maximize the emotional impact of what the characters are going through. He shows a mastery of spacial dynamics between the characters, often making social statements just with where they are positioned compared to each other in the frame.

Then, an hour into the movie, it makes an abrupt and complete change. The action leaves Gondo's home, and the focus shifts almost completely away from Gondo, over to Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai, the star of Kagemusha), the man tasked with hunting down and arresting the kidnapper. He and his team are good detectives, and what follows is a fascinating police procedural, as we watch them solve the mystery.

Amidst all this is a very large social statement. We learn that Gondo's large, air conditioned (a luxury at the time) home is located high atop a hill over the city of Yokohama, seemingly arrogantly looking down on the poor people below, sweating and suffering during a summer heatwave. There is a sense of local resentment toward Gondo and his place in society. Eventually, we follow the detectives and the kidnapper (played brilliantly and almost silently by Tsutomu Yamazaki) into the lowest place in the city, where heroin addicts lay in the gutter and writhe in agony.

I could go on and on how incredible High and Low is, but then you wouldn't really have any reason to watch it yourself. Kurosawa is, in my estimation, the greatest filmmaker who ever lived, and this is right up there with Seven Samurai and Rashomon as one of his greatest achievements. And those are just among the ones I've seen!

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