Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Reel Deal: High and Low, 1963

by Nick Pierce

Kurosawa, Japan’s most celebrated and influential filmmaker, is of course best known for his thunderous, visually-striking and blisteringly cool contributions to the genre of the samurai epic with which his name is nowadays synonymous. However, High and Low, one of the more obscure films in his body of work demonstrates that he was just as adept at handling the contemporary thriller. The wonderful thing about Kurosawa is how - despite being unarguably an arthouse director - he manages to make films that are far more accessible than those of many other masters of the medium. Arguably the secret to this ability lies in his refashioning of genre material. In High and Low he uses a  claustrophobic crime narrative as the starting point for a profound exploration of 1960s Japan, drawing viewers in with the gripping plotline only to present them with unsettling questions about the deleterious effects of modern life on humanity.

  The film opens in the swanky hillside property of affluent executive Kingo Gondo, played by the commanding Toshiro Mifune – Kurosawa’s regular lead actor - as he butts heads with the other shareholders in a company called National Shoes where he has made his fortune. After the businessmen have left, angry at Gondo’s refusal to assist them in squeezing out the company chairman and vowing to ruin him, Gondo shares his plan to outwit the other executives by secretly buying the majority of shares and thereby gaining control. We learn that the determined Gondo has staked the entirety of his wealth on this risky stratagem, and just as it appears he has succeeded he receives a phonecall from a mysterious person, who appears to bear Gondo a personal grudge, informing him that his son has been abducted. He is told that he must pay 30 million yen in order to have him returned – an enormous sum that would prevent Gondo from being able to complete the buyout of National Shoes and effectively bankrupt him. It soon emerges that the kidnapper has accidentally taken the child of one of Gondo’s employees instead, and the ruthless capitalist is presented with the ethical dilemma of ignoring the demands or ensuring the safety of an innocent victim to whom he feels no parental obligation.  

  The film takes an unexpected turn, however, when after Gondo has made his monumental decision the narrative veers away from the fallout this virtuous gesture will have upon his career and life to instead narrow upon the police investigation to identify and capture the mastermind of the kidnapping. Gondo is suddenly and lastingly relegated to the background of the picture. We might simply conclude that this is a way of conveying how his act has made him a shadow of his former self; we only glimpse him performing domestic duties like mowing the lawn, or looking on helplessly as his beloved house is prepared for auction to cover his debts. From here on in he is a silent and stoic figure deprived of the persona of a steely and overpowering businessman that he had previously wielded so fiercely, and this shift in his status is underlined by his marginalization within the plot.

  However, we must also take into account the thematic undercurrent of how material wealth and economic status impact upon and even come to define human beings in a capitalist society. A theme hinted at even in the film’s English-language title, which starkly reduces human difference and identity to the socio-economic binary of ‘high’ and ‘low’. In the context of the film as a whole, Gondo’s abrupt disappearance from the narrative therefore has a far more complex resonance. Kurosawa devotes nearly the first hour of the film’s running time to establishing Gondo as a multi-layered individual, wrestling with his obsession with succeeding in business and the opposing guilt at potentially sacrificing an innocent child in order to protect his ambitions. Yet his story after his financial ruin is displaced, with the agents of the criminal justice system – the local police force – taking centre-stage. The film is one of two distinct halves: the first of intensely personal drama and the second of impersonal police procedural. Whereas the first hour has a clear protagonist in Gondo, the last hour is remarkable for not providing us with any similar figure with whom to sympathise. The police detectives are, aside from a few characters tics, largely indistinguishable, and we do not learn anything of their lives outside their work. Similarly, when the film begins to follow the kidnapper as he attempts to cover his tracks, he remains almost unknown. All that we can gather from the squalid apartment he keeps is that he is a poor man, providing the most likely motive for his crime.

  In short, the individual gives way to and is defeated by broader impersonal economic and social forces of deprivation, the crime it produces and the machinery of state tasked with eradicating the same. Kurosawa can thus be said to structure the film so as to critique modern Japanese capitalist society, implying that the emotions, suffering and sacrifice of a man like Gondo are rendered unimportant by a culture that emphasises the primacy of having material wealth above all else. What’s more, the absence of characterisation in the second half suggests that the citizens of modern Japan, from detectives to money-seeking criminals, are rendered little more than slaves to this same destructive ideology.

  Additionally, by directing the camera away from Gondo Kurosawa imbues the film with an almost Brechtian conception of the role of the individual in capitalism, seemingly challenging the idea that Gondo’s sacrifice is heroic and the expectation that this ‘heroism’ should be affirmed by heightening the pathos of his downfall. It suggests perhaps that how Gondo chose to respond should not be interpreted as a heroic act so much as simply the correct decision, provoking the viewer to reconsider the ethics of any culture that values wealth so highly that opting to lose it for the sake of a human life should be treated with reverent admiration rather than perceived as merely the obvious course of action.

  Suffice it to say, without revealing all of the narrative, that High and Low shades in a genuinely unsettling picture of modern civilisation over its running time. It is further testament to Kurosawa’s genius for creating art that leaves an indelible impression, like a psychic wound, even when he’s not wielding the samurai sword.