In addition to the films set in historical times such as “Seven Samurai,” “Rashomon,” and “Ran” for which he is best known, Akira Kurosawa directed a number of excellent movies set in post-WWII Japan (movies about any present day become historical artifacts, so that it cannot be said that any of Kurosawa’s movies show “present-day Japan”). Many of the latter involve criminals and policemen, my favorite of these being “Stray Dogs.”
The 1963 example, “Tengoku to jigoku” (which means “Heaven and Hell,” but has the more secular translation “High and Low” as its English title), based on Ed McBain’s novel King’s Ransom is split in two. The first part is set on a hill in the grand house of industrialist Gondo Kingo (Mifune Toshirô). Things up there are not very heavenly, first because the other directors of the National Shoe Corporation to which Gondo has devoted himself are intent on producing shoddy but profitable products. Gondo has assembled financing to gain a controlling interest of the company and is about to dispatch thirty million yen to Osaka when he receives a call that his son has been kidnapped. Hell has invaded heaven, as it were.
Gondo soon discovers that his son has not been kidnapped. Rather, the chauffeur’s son, wearing the son’s cowboy outfit has. Whether Gondo will sacrifice everything he has worked for to save someone else’s child is the dilemma of the first part of the movie. The kidnapper’s calls make it clear that the house on the hill is within his field of vision and taunts Gondo as a squad of policemen stand by, frustrated at their inability to trace the calls. The earnest detective in charge, Tokura (played by Nakadai Tatsuya who appeared in many Kurosawa films and played the leads in the twin summits “Kagemusha” and “Ran”) is sensitive to the very tough choice Gondo must make. Reaching down to save a child from the grip of a self-styled prince of darkness requires sacrificing all Gondo has worked for, including the house which is mortgaged as part of the take-over bid he cannot make if the 30 million yen are diverted.
In the second half of the movie, set in the lower precincts and culminating in the hellacious “Dope Alley,” Gondo hardly figures (until the very end). Tokura commands considerable resources and has the cooperation of the press in tracking down the kidnappers. Kurosawa was interested in the process rather than in playing “whodunit” games, and shows the caller (Yamazaki Tsutomu ) at the start of the manhunt portion.
Both parts alternate shots that are markedly from unusually low or unusually high angles (justifying the English title for how Kurosawa’s frequent collaborator, cinematographer Nakai Asakazu , shot the scenes? Saitô Takao was also credited). The first part begins to feel claustrophobic. It is shot almost entirely in the living room of the house on the hill. It might seem static, but for someone interested in cinema technique, the way Gondo is filmed (both the angles and the distance which translates into how much of the screen he fills) is fascinating.
The second part has more fluid camerawork and more varied settings as the police (and the chauffeur) track down the architect of the kidnapping. Tokura is good at his job, and relentless. The kidnapper is filled with resentment at the rich, but has no evident solidarity with the others who live with him in the teeming city (hell). Some of the scenes of police meetings and press cajoling (more than briefings they orchestrate disinformation to flush out the kidnapper) seem to me to go on too long. That is, I felt I had a bit too much time to look at the widescreen compositions, when I would have preferred to get on with the plot. (Our sensation-jaded third-millennium expectations and attention deficits tend to stimulate impatience with the pacing of the classic Japanese movies, even “Seven Samurai.”)
Gondo is not one of Mifune’s flamboyant roles. In his last two Kurosawa outings (this and “Red Beard“) he plays mature men whose fury at the outrageous behavior of others is held in check and whose responsibilities are many and weigh very heavily. This is especially true of the very Dosteoveskyian last scene in which Gondo goes to see the kidnapper and the kidnapper does all the flamboyant acting out (recalling the young Mifune of “Drunken Angel” as well as Nakadai’s arrogant goon in “Yojimbo”). The then-unknown Yamazaki Tsutomu brings depth to the twisted intern (but is too vicious to be a worthy opponent of either Mifune or Nakadai). Ishiyama Kenjiro provides the only comic relief as “Bos’n,” a gruff bald detective who would like nothing better than to tear the kidnapper limb from limb (a proto-Kojack?) Takashi Shimura shows up in a small role. Mihashi Tatsuya has a considerably more significant part as Gondo’s nefarious assistant.
Nasty a character as Ginjirô is, he is so outnumbered in the massive manhunt of implacable policement that he gins a certain underdog sympathy (as Peter Lorre did in being sought by the criminal underground in “M”).
The print of the Criterion DVD is not nearly as good as that on its DVD of “Red Beard.” The latter has the best commentary tracks not by a film’s director that I have heard. The Criterion “High and Low” DVD (out since 1998) has no commentary track. Indeed, it has no extras, not even a trailer for “High and Low.”
©2016, Stephen O. Murray