Monday, December 05, 2016

Akira Kurosawa: 天国と地獄 / 'High and Low' (1963)

Akira Kurosawa's 天国と地獄 / High and Low (1963) is a rare example of a movie that's better than its source. Kurosawa took the basic premise of Ed McBain's King's Ransom: An 87th Precinct Mystery (originally published in 1959 and since reprinted) and morphed the setting into a Japanese one. The result is a deliberately paced, noticeably well-crafted black and white film.
The psycho kidnapper is one cold slice. 
Envy and hatred are partial motivators: having to look up at Mr. Gondo's house from relative poverty may have driven him over the edge. 
The great Toshiro Mifune (1920-1997) as Mr. Gondo, a man who rose from shoe-and-satchel craftsman to high officer in the National Shoe Company. All is put in jeopardy by his psychopathic nemesis.

Just as pleasurable as seeing Kurosawa's craftsmanship in play is watching High and Low as a cultural artifact. I tend to do both at the same time -- watch and see.

What this 1963 movie reveals from the perspective of 2016

Almost complete male domination of Japanese society in the public sphere.

Reiko Gondo (Kyōko Kagawa), Mr. Gondo's spouse, is dressed traditionally and seems very deferential and submissive. However, she wields influence and helps push her husband in a more compassionate direction.

Back-stabbing and power-plays at the corporate level.

Debates over quality vs. quantity, and profit margins. Mr. Gondo prefers high quality even though this means a smaller profit margin. He is proud of his work and wishes to remain so.

Competent and respectable police force. In the field, detectives and supports operate in pairs.

Sensitive awareness of socio-economic differences between groups of characters by the director and by the characters themselves.

The role of honor -- and differences between honor in theory (high-minded) and reality (more practical or even cynical).

Heroin -- matter-of-fact discussions by police; somewhat lurid depictions of "Dope Alley" reminiscent of  Billy Wilder's The Lost Weekend (1945). 

Articulated mass transit system (trains and trolleys).

Seemingly no air conditioning.

Use of telephones and wiretapping. Public telephones in use.

Changes since 1963?

Women in Japan have made gains, comparatively.

Transit, air conditioning and telecommunications highly developed, with society more fully saturated with all three elements.

Films rarely made in black & white anymore.

Films are rarely this well-crafted, although many newer television series have made tremendous strides in quality. 

Today's Rune: Fertility. 


the walking man said...

I absolutely understand that cultures beyond America have valid statements to make with their art and expression. I still can not sit long enough to make it through a subtitled film where the sound track is in a language I do not understand or one that has dubbed voice overs. I guess in a way I am missing a lot in the film world.

Charles Gramlich said...

I had no idea this was based on an 87th precinct book. Kind of cool.