Sunday, April 22, 2012

High and Low

                                                Director: Akira Kurosawa
                      Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyoko Kagawa

I usually try to steer clear of "the classics" since for the most part, they have been covered ad nauseum elsewhere in cyberspace, but I've always been fascinated with Kurosawa's High and Low since it was such a departure for the legendary director. Following on the heals of his twin samurai classics Yojimbo and Sanjuro, Kurosawa seemed to want to try something completely different. Here he does a no frills film noir/detective thriller. No morality play to be found anywhere. The characters are as black and white as the film grain they are shot on. This lack of complexity at first can make the film appear relatively minor in the master director's cannon, but what it really shows is that Kurosawa was just as capable of doing a straight ahead thriller as anyone else in the business.

Toshiro Mifune portrays Kingo Gondo, a man who built his hugely successful shoe business from the ground up and is now attempting to rest it away from the greedy and incompetent stock brokers who are attempting to oust him. His plans of buying the major share of his company are thwarted when his housekeeper's young son is kidnapped for ransom (they meant to kidnap Gondo's boy, but goofed it). The police led by Chief detective Tokura (played by Tatsuya Nakadai) are brought in as Gondo wrestles with the decision whether or not to pay the kidnappers, knowing that the money it would take would put him in ruin.

The japanese title for this film also translates as "Heaven and Hell" and this may be a more apt description for what is portrayed here. The first third of this film takes place in Gondo's luxurious house that sits above the city (Heaven). Most of the rest of the film (once the chase is on) takes place in the crowded, sweaty streets of tokyo (Hell). That Kurosawa devotes nearly an hour's worth of footage at the beginning to staying securely inside Gondo's house is amazing and again reveals what an assured director he was (especially at this stage in his career). When the story suddenly shifts location, it causes a jolt because the viewer had been lulled into feeling comfortable with the familiar house set (no matter the urgency and angst felt during the tense negotiation scenes). In an oh so subtle way, we are given a true feeling of both Heaven and Hell on Earth.

Both Mifune and Nakadai give terrifically subtle perfs, causing one to realize just how broadly they played their characters in previous Kurosawa films. Mifune is pensive and rarely raises his voice except when the tension becomes unbearable. We feel his conflict in not wanting to pay the kidnappers and sacrificing all he has, yet at the same time realizing he must pay (it would be unthinkably heartless for him not to). Nakadai's Takura is one of the great undersated portrayals I've ever seen. As the film progresses, it is made clear that along with getting the child back safely, it is very important to him that he retrieves as much of Gondo's money as possible simply because of Gondo's great and selfless sacrifice. Takura is determined to do right by him and the audience is made to feel comfortable by the detective's (and really, his entire force's) actions. In the dark and brooding world of Film Noir, to have that rare picture that dares to show an almost casual air of goodness in it's protagonists without losing any of it's tension or seediness (or believability, for that matter) is very refreshing.

It's debatable whether High and Low is one of Kurosawa's masterpieces, but it is as enjoyable a viewing as any he has done and that has to count for something.

                                                                ***1/2 / ****

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