Thursday, July 2, 2015

High and Low (1963)

Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writer: Akira Kurosawa, Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, Evan Hunter, Hideo Oguni
DP: Takao Saito, Asakazu Nakai
Score: Masaru Sato
Producer: Akira Kurosawa, Ryuzo Kikushima, Tomoyuki Tanaka
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kyoko Kagawa
Distribution: Toho Company
Length: 2 hrs. 23 min.

The film opens with credits over a few atmospheric shots of a smoky, crowded city set to somber music. We then find ourselves in a house standing at the top of a hill overlooking the city. Here's the question: what do the people in the house think of the city they can see out their window? Do they share the opening credits' impression that it's a place of uncertainty and congestion?

The owner of the home, and the main character of High and Low, is Kingo Gondo, an executive of National Shoes played by Toshiro Mifune. He and the other executives of argue over whether it's better to make flimsy shoes that will sell more, or durable shoes that will sell less. The other executives insist on the former; they think shoes are an accessory. But Gondo insists that shoes need to be more than that: a shoe must carry all of a person's weight. He tears apart the sample shoe they gave him with his bare hands. We don't know it yet, but this will set the stage for the rest of the film.

After Gondo's argument with the executive passes, the film's real conflict arises. His chauffeur's son has been kidnapped, and he's the only one who can pay the ransom and save him.  If he pays, he and his family will face financial ruin. Both his moral status and his status as a man of success are placed in jeopardy. He took out risky loans in the hope that he could overrule the other executives of National Shoes and run the company according to his own moral convictions; but how can a man of such convictions let an innocent child die? 

Gondo has a habit of stepping out onto his balcony and observing the city when he needs to think. For the whole time Gondo struggles with his decision, the film takes away his freedom to indulge in this habit. This first half of the film turns Gondo's house into a prison, letting the camera rove ceaselessly in a single room as if nervously pacing, and never giving us a glimpse of the outside world. His windows are covered and Gondo's movements gravitate toward the walls. Almost everything we see takes place within a single room. Kurosawa also employs a technique used in other films in which he creates tension by having many characters in the frame at once, but none looking at each other, rendering them together, yet isolated.

When he finally gets to go outside again, it's extremely cathartic. Halfway through the film, the story's focus changes from Gondo's decision to the police search for the kidnapper, and the camera is allowed to leave his house. But the catharsis of going outside is short-lived: the city below is uncomfortable and sweaty and the citizens live in tiny compartments a hundred times more claustrophobic than Gondo’s house. This second half of the film is full of busy compositions, showing off how overstuffed and crowded the city is.  The saddest, most unsettling scene in the film is one in which the police move slowly through a slum full of half-conscious heroin addicts until they encounter a woman going through withdrawal, throwing herself against the walls in anguish. 

We come to understand that what Gondo said about shoes bearing all of a person’s weight becomes an analogy for the conditions in the city. There are many different kinds of societal malaise in High and Low, and specific parts of the community bear the brunt of it. When we witness this, we realize that the first half of the film wasn’t just trying to breed anxiety and claustrophobia, it was illustrating a world; as difficult as Gondo’s decision was, he was living in a world of comfort and luxury relative to the people in the city below.  Gondo had a habit of looking out into the city when he needed to think; people in the city can look up at his house too, but for them it's a gaudy distraction.

The two worlds of High and Low are formed by ambient sound (or lack thereof), the way the characters move through them, and temperature, as implied by details like fans, body language, or light. These are impersonal, nonrational details that nonetheless carry a huge influence on human life: every character thinks they're justified in their actions, but those living and working in harsh conditions - the police and the kidnapper alike - display some irrational folly.

The characters' moral convictions and impulses are partly inspired by compassion, and they say so; but they're also inspired by a desire to make sense of the world. They try to attend to each other's needs, but they also look for someone to blame. The police take the most care to understand the world in their tireless work to help Gondo; but they have a flawed sense of justice that ultimately prevents them from understanding how to help him. This is not arbitrary: like the shoes in the opening scene, everyone has a breaking point, and it’s harder to make good decisions when you’re living in hell than when you’re living in heaven. 

High and Low is my favorite of Kurosawa’s films because of the way it represents the seamless unity of two ostensibly contradictory aspects of humanity: we like to think we can define ourselves on our own terms, and sometimes we can. But we’re still limited beings in a world of infinite forces, prone to irrationality, and we all make mistakes when we’re under duress. It does not demonize characters for lacking resolve when they're in a taxing situation. In the end, the struggle faced in High and Low is only partly overcome; there isn't just one reason why, or one way things might've turned out differently.

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