Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Criterion Recollection: A Kurosawa Crime Drama

Note: We, the good people of Et tu, Mr. Destructo? are proud to present Criterion Recollection, an analysis of the popular Criterion Collection of historic and unique achievements in film. Your guide is Mark Brendle, a former media critic for and a short-fiction writer. Brendle lives in the Pacific Northwest in a small post-recycled yurt adjacent to America's largest family-owned retail video and book store, Art Trough. When not writing or staring purposefully at culture, Brendle works as a fair-trade coffee beanist. You can follow him on Twitter.

A Question of Air Conditioning: Spine #24, High and Low (1963)

Thanks to the success of films like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo, many western viewers associate Akira Kurosawa with sword-wielding Samurai riding through feudal Japan. However, one of his finest films is a thoroughly gripping modern drama called High and Low (Tengoku to Jigoku, which directly translates as "Heaven and Hell"). Though very loosely based on Ed McBain's King's Ransom, the film bears Kurosawa's inimitable auteur stamp: his ability to take a run-of-the-mill police procedural and transmute it into an existential, socially aware exploration of injustice.

Toshiro Mifune heads up a wonderful cast as Kingo Gondo, an executive director at National Shoes, who, despite having a name better suited for an uncomfortably large marital aid, leads us through the very serious social dilemmas of the film. However, one of Kurosawa's mottos, "a good movie should also be enjoyable to watch," comes to fruition in High and Low, which follows its own theme of amalgamated binaries as both an artistic triumph and a genuine entertainment. In addition to being a dense and heady indictment of social conditions across the world, the film functions on a basic level as an extremely watchable suspense-thriller.

High and Low explores dichotomies: heaven and hell, high and low, rich and poor, good and evil, law and crime. The film itself can be split into two separate sections; the first hour consists of a tight, claustrophobic chamber drama — almost exclusively in a single location, Gondo's living room — shot in long takes. The second section blows up into the police procedural, where the viewer is taken on a tour of "hell": the slums, ghettos and underworld of postwar Japan. The ethical crux of the film occupies the gap between these dichotomies, and at every turn Kurosawa asks how it is that these disparities can exist, and what are the consequences for human beings caught at either pole.

Ransom stories may seem cliché now, but High and Low is extremely clever in its presentation and structure: the fundamental nature of ransom acts as an objective correlative for the dangers of capitalism. In the world of ransom, money and life are interchangeable; we place a fixed, though arbitrary, price on a human being. Because Gondo leads a rich lifestyle and surrounds himself with cutthroat business partners, the line between money and life already blurs in his perspective. Kurosawa and his co-writers pepper the dialogue with zero-sum choices between life and money. Gondo's assistant Kawanishi embodies the modern businessman; he operates without any kind of moral compass, using his own professional success as the only measure of his actions. He says to Gondo, "If you pay [the ransom] it's suicide," and later rationalizes a betrayal to other executives with, "I had to protect myself." The complete conflation between money and life defines these businessmen. Gondo tells Kawanishi that he is "inhuman," and it is this lack of humanity that separates the other businessmen from Gondo, who is held up as an exemplary businessman — an ethical capitalist.

Gondo loves his work. Not the product of it, nor the wealth he has obtained from it, but as a self-made man who raised himself up from a shoemaker's apprentice to an executive, he loves making shoes, doing quality work. Kurosawa conveys this in a touching scene of low-tech ingenuity where Gondo breaks out his old shoemaker's tools to help the police hide two devices inside the ransom cases. His workers — the assembly line, bottom of the ladder workers — love Gondo and respect his dedication. "He is a good boss, if you do good work," one employee says of him. The other executives, who lack his popular support, resent Gondo; he is both more creative and more compassionate.

The other character described as inhuman or monstrous is the kidnapper himself, and often these statements on his inhumanity are accompanied by bitter acknowledgements of his shrewd, logical planning. These same qualities, in the legal sphere of business, determine success or failure. Gondo's principled decision to save the child ruins him financially. Only those who "have the strength" to resist the gravity of ethics continue in their upward pursuit of power and wealth. Slavoj Zizek comments on this reversal of strength, saying that in late capitalism, strength is no longer the ability to hold one's ethical stance, sacrificing everything to it, but rather the ability to sacrifice one's ethical stance for the purposes of commerce and social integration.

High and Low surprises the audience with its crucial twist: the kidnapped child turns out to be the son of a poor man, but the kidnapper holds Gondo responsible for the ransom nonetheless. The poor man thus fully depends on Gondo to choose life over money. His pathetic presence on screen, his subservient and hapless posture, the resignation of his expression, and his continued apologies to Gondo, make him the ethical stain of the picture. Kurosawa emphasizes this by the poor man's location within the cramped, claustrophobic set of Gondo's living room, while Gondo tries to ignore him. Later, the man stands in the center of the frame as Gondo speaks with a detective. The poor man's ubiquity, his physical insistence on reality, provides the inescapable, empirical proof that we must choose between compassion and apathy, between good and evil. Despite the surety with which we believe Gondo will pay the ransom, the struggle is torturous and his decision to pay shown to be wholly illogical. He loses his livelihood to save his humanity.

Although within the world of High and Low one must choose between good and evil, few characters represent solely one or the other. With the exception of Gondo's infinitely good wife and his infinitely evil business partners, all the characters display a range of moral potential, making them both human and accessible. If one thinks about an American ransom movie, like Mel Gibson's Ransom or Harrison Ford's Firewall, the flatness of every character is striking. In Ransom, Gibson uses money to tempt those around the kidnappers to turn them in. In Firewall, Ford gets angry, mutters about not touching his family, and then beats the shit out of the surprisingly incompetent bad guys — perhaps a first in the Harrison Ford oeuvre. But Kurosawa doesn't like to draw easy moral conclusions. Gondo, the hero, is simultaneously a wealthy, somewhat sneaky, businessman and a principled, responsible human being willing to place human life above money. The kidnapper, though often called "disturbed" is less a maniac than a desperate and pathetic nobody, whose agonizing cry of utter helplessness in the face of an unjust universe leaves Gondo and the viewer puzzling out his enigmatic pain.

If the film truly does contain two halves, a heaven and a hell, why does the first half, ostensibly the "heaven" portion, take place in a cold, obscured and claustrophobic environment, rife with tension? Kurosawa uses heaven ironically here; the heaven of the wealthy is only a fantasy. Those with and without money to some degree believe that financial success brings happiness. Instead Kurosawa portrays Gondo's life as full of anxiety, a precarious balancing act amongst individual initiative, cooperation with his fellow directors and his family life. Even before the ransom demand, he struggles with byzantine corporate politics and the terms of a buyout, and we learn he has just accrued a huge amount of debt in order to control National Shoes all by himself. The price Gondo and men like him pay for their material success is the classic price of power: paranoia and anxiety. If Kurosawa had made Gondo the quintessential playboy, sipping martinis in Lamborghini-shaped pool, it would color the film totally differently. Instead, when we leave the heaven section of the film, we breathe a sigh of relief, of fresh air, glad to finally be out of the prison of luxury.

The ransom trade can only be described as genius. Perfectly shot and acted, the tension increases as we board a high-speed train, moving from cramped cabin to cramped cabin, furiously following Gondo as he follows the kidnapper's instructions. He drops the money out the window, and the kidnappers let the boy go. Gondo's emotional reaction to the boy's safe recovery makes even the hardened Kojak-esque detective "Bos'n" shed a tear.

Kurosawa prods the audience with another key theme of High and Low: ethical sacrifice inspires others. Throughout the second half of the film, various characters say "do it for Mr. Gondo" because they appreciate the position he was put in, and the sacrifice he makes to do the right thing. The police work harder, following in Gondo's footsteps of loving one's work, of doing the best job one can do. Modern audiences, attuned to Hollywood sensibilities that police departments are stupid and corrupt, may be taken aback by the efficiency with which the police operate in this film. (They do such a good job, in fact, that the movie was shown to police departments as a guide on how to pursue kidnapping cases in real life.) But Kurosawa does not naïvely pretend the police are perfect; rather he makes an artistic statement that one ethical act can compel others to follow suit. Even the poor man whose son was taken, in his own foolhardy way, works to find the kidnapper because of the guilt he feels over Gondo's financial ruin.

Twice in the film, Gondo might choose to abandon his previous moral attitude and sink to the level of the fallen. The first time, he refuses to take a sinecure with his old company in exchange for acknowledging that he erred in choosing "sympathy, which costs nothing" over "real" money which his partners had invested. The second challenge comes at the film's end, when the kidnapper, now detained and sentenced to death, taunts Gondo, entreating him to hate him back.

In American cinema, this scene typically runs something like:
KIDNAPPER: I'll see you in hell.
GONDO: (taking matchstick out of his mouth) Guess you're gonna have to get there first.

GONDO ignites the match and flicks it over KIDNAPER's head and into toilet, lighting the bowl of pruno on fire. Cut to OUTSIDE and GONDO walking away from the prison, unfazed, as it explodes. Cut to GONDO's perspective, as camera is shot through sunglasses, whose reflections at the periphery show the building on fire. In the foreground we see GONDO's WIFE muss the hair of the KIDNAPED CHILD, who is tossing a football. Looks like he'll agree to be the quarterback of the team after all.

Kings of Leon's "Sex on Fire" plays as end credits roll.
But Gondo's ethical stance here avoids easy entertainment or vicarious vengeance. The same humanity that made him choose the child's life over his wealth gives him the compassion to empathize with the kidnapper instead of hating him. Gondo says, "Why should you and I hate each other?" to which the kidnapper responds, "I don’t know." The bad guy here isn't the kidnapper, but the infrastructure, the system of living that led these men into this position in the first place. Class warfare, why the poor must hate the rich, exists because poor and rich exist as realities. So long as the few have much and the many have nothing, the Gondos and the wretched poor must hate each other as a matter of validation for the social complacency that allows them to function in society.

Kurosawa explores this materialism in another important theme in High and Low, westernization. He struggled with westernization, both as it affected postwar Japan as a whole and as it affected his image as a "western" director. He always denied the attribution of miming or taking inspiration from the west, claiming he was instead a thoroughly Japanese filmmaker. In High and Low, he addresses the social westernization of Japan, especially its nightlife, lower classes and vices. As the police close in on the kidnapper, he leads them into an urban jungle, replete with jazz music, Pepsi ads and rowdy American GIs.

The GIs' presence evokes Japan's fear and uneasy adoption of western culture and values. Commodore Matthew Perry's gunboat diplomacy and attack on Tokyo harbor in 1853 (amongst other clashes with westerners) accelerated preexisting Japanese nationalist trends and industrialization. These last two conditions found ugly realization in Japan's pushback against western imperialism and creation of its own — the Greater East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere and the horrors of WWII, wrought at least in part by imitation of western behavior and the resource necessities of massive industrialization. Next, the United States' postwar occupation of Japan encouraged industrial restoration, seeking to draw Japan into partnership with the west and to use it as a bulwark against Stalinist Russia.

Kurosawa doesn't point fingers squarely at the United States, but rather calls into question the ready adoption of foreign culture into an ancient and well-developed civilization. Japan's westernization, the very face of its modern and reconstructed cities, was the product of a relatively disadvantaged and defenseless nation seeking to mimic the prosperity and prowess of its neighbors in the community of nations. Later, its pursuit of equal standing and of the ability to subjugate its neighbors and even nations at "the top" led it to enormous moral compromise at unspeakably widespread and devastating cost. At the nadir of hell, in the city's underworld, it's as if Kurosawa asks how his people got there.

That nadir is found in wretched ghosts of "dope alley." The zombie-like, emaciated poor grope at the kidnapper and the detectives as they make their way through the alley, their pained expressions and miserable presence a cry for social examination. In 1963, when this film came out, this gritty reality was seldom seen. The filmmakers themselves had no idea how to design a dope alley set, so they found a real one and were shocked by what they saw. In the supplementary material, assistant director Masanobu Deme comments on hiding behind a policeman as he gave them the tour. These dirty details, like the river of garbage along which the kidnapper walks to return to his brutally hot home, are hard facts to integrate into the insulated world of success. We would prefer to close the carriage windows when driving through the bad sections of town.

It comes down to a question of air conditioning. At the end of the film, the kidnapper says, "I do know my room was cold in winter… and so hot in summer I couldn't sleep. Your house looked like heaven, high up there. That's how I began to hate you. That gave me a purpose in life." The vast difference in the fundamental quality of life between the very rich and the very poor lies at the heart of High and Low. A man, in his room, too cold or hot to sleep, has to look out his window, up the hill, to the house of another man who suffers no such indignities. Beyond envy, this produces an ethical question: not "How can I get rich?" but "How can everyone enjoy a higher quality of life?" The answer, as Gondo discovered, is for the haves to sacrifice their wealth for life, to give up luxury to mitigate another's suffering.

High and Low operates flawlessly on many different levels. It is funny, poignant, well acted, well shot, intelligent and emotional. At 2 hours and 24 minutes it accomplishes all it sets out to do, but with a masterful pacing that never leads to boredom. The Criterion re-release has exceptional quality for a DVD. The supplements are adequate, though not mind-blowing. I personally find Stephen Prince's commentary tracks a bit dull, but they are full of interesting information. He alternates between content and form, discussing most aspects of this complex film. The bonus documentary, It is Wonderful to Create, is split across nearly all the Criterion Kurosawa DVDs. I've seen eight or ten parts and have never been disappointed. Additionally, a Japanese talk show interview with Mifune provides a highly entertaining, though superficial, example of his sheer presence. I highly recommend this movie and this DVD, but be on the look out for a Blu-Ray release in the near future, if that sort of thing matters to you.