[19 October 2010]
High and Low
What would you give to save the life of your child? That should be an easy one: you give whatever it takes, down to your last nickel and then some. A more interesting question: what would you give to save the life of someone else’s child? Wealthy industrialist Kingo Gondo (Toshirô Mifune) finds himself confronted with both questions in rapid succession in Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low. First he receives a ransom demand for his son then learns that in fact it is the son of his chauffeur who has been kidnapped. No matter, says the kidnapper Takeuchi (Tsutomo Yamazaki): Gondo must pay 30 million yen (an amount which will bankrupt him) or the boy dies.
Gondo’s dilemma is the focus of the first third of the film as various other characters (his wife, the boy’s father, his secretary, members of the police force) provide information and offer their points of view. Their discussion, while fascinating in its own right, also sets up another, larger question which is Kurosawa’s real interest: in a rapidly modernizing society such as postwar Japan what is the responsibility of one person to another? The Japanese title Tengoku to jigoku—more accurately translated Heaven and Hell—is a statement of geography as well as social class, set in summertime Yokohama: Gondo and his family live in a luxurious air-conditioned house atop a hill overlooking a sweltering slum where Takeuchi and countless others lead a desperate existence. To put Kurosawa’s consequences in other terms, what is the consequence of arranging a society so that a few live in heaven while many more live in hell?
The first fifty-five minutes of High and Low take place in Gondo’s westernized living room. Kurosawa presents this section of the film in long takes which feel almost like a stage play (Kurosawa used two cameras filming continuously and decided later how to cut them together). The mood shifts abruptly as Gondo moves to carry out the kidnapper’s demands to bring the ransom money, packed in two thin briefcases, on to the Kodama express train. In a remarkable four-minute action sequence we see the police racing to set up surveillance cameras, get a glimpse of the kidnapped boy as the train whizzes through the countryside, and watch Gondo, as instructed, drop the briefcases through the moving train’s window.
After a brief introduction to the kidnapper in his cramped flat, most of the remainder of the film is a detailed police procedural (the screenplay is adapted from the novel King’s Ransom by Ed McBain, a pen name for Evan Hunter) depicting the labor-intensive process of gathering information and putting the pieces of the puzzle together first to identify and then arrest Takeuchi. Static briefing sessions are intercut with flashbacks illustrating how information was obtained and we also see more of the hell of Yokohama: backstreets and dive bars full of drug addicts and prostitutes whose lives are valued at very little. Ultimately Gondo and Takeuchi have a confrontation which honors the complexity of the issues and refrains from offering a simplistic answer to Kurosawa’s question.
A meditation on the power of human kindness dressed as a coming of age story, Red Beard glorifies those who would forgo glory in the thankless service of others.
The film centers around Yatsumoto, who begins an apprenticeship at a public clinic as an ambitious, young doctor. He unwillingly joins at the behest of his parents and the father of his former fiancé, who is also a prominent doctor. He opportunistically hopes that by doing their will now, he will be secured an important position. Meanwhile, the spoiled Yatsumoto is offended by everything from the clinic’s bland uniforms to the heavy-handed authority of its director.
Dr. Niide, the titular “Red Beard”, is brilliantly portrayed by Toshiro Mifune in his last role with Akira Kurosawa, ending a filmmaking partnership that had spanned 16 films in 17 years. Mifune plays Niide as a gruff, all-knowing eccentric, as schooled in human behavior as medicine. Yatsumoto takes tenuous first steps out of opportunism into Niide’s mindset of service, though by the film’s end he is ready to take up Red Beard’s mantle and submit his future to serve those who need him most.
Kurosawa’s film is most compelling in its thematic layering, its use of minor characters to portray good deeds to passing from person to person. One sequence displays this effect: Early on in Yatsumoto’s apprenticeship, he and Niide make a house call to a brothel. There, they meet Otoyo, a child the brothel owner intends to turn into a prostitute and whose troubles have resulted in a high fever and deep emotional distress caused by the death of her family. The doctors remove Otoyo to the clinic where Niide declares her to be Yatsumoto’s first patient, who tenderly nurses her back to health; however, her mental well being is slower in coming. Yatsumoto’s empathy over the obvious psychic trauma endured by the young girl moves him another step closer to the enlightenment of self-sacrifice as represented in Dr. Niide. It is Yatsumoto’s own fever, brought on through his selfless care of Otoyo, that finally brings the young girl out of her intricately constructed defenses. She becomes able to feel again, so much so that she adopts the neighborhood “sneak thief,” a young boy named Choji, who steals gruel from the clinic’s kitchen. The clinics’ kitchen staff initially chide Otoyo for patronizing Choji but are finally won over by her kindness, even to the point where they surreptitiously help her in her promise to bring him kitchen leftovers.
The ritual suicide by poisoning of Choji’s family, from which the boy himself only narrowly escapes, offers perhaps the film’s most essential scene. Choji lies on the brink of death, and, beside themselves with grief, Otoyo and the kitchen staff scream the boy’s name down a well. Local custom has it that the newly dead thusly can be “called back” to the land of the living. Kurosawa’s camera pans down the well to show the faces of the mourners reflected on the surface of the water. They “call” to themselves; their concern is just as much a catalyst to one another as a blessing to him.
The enduring message of Red Beard is that of the long reach of human kindness. Kurosawa diagrams the difficult kindnesses done to Yatsumoto, Otoyo, and Choji, which each, in turn, benefit others down the continuing chain of human experience. Yatsumoto’s transformation is told through imagery as stark and unflinching as its moral claims; both stay with the viewer, continuing the chain.
Kurosawa’s first film after Red Beard (1965), Dodes’ka-Den was panned by the critics in Japan, despite receiving an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign-Language Film of 1970 in the United States. Over the years it has come to be respected for its expressionistic use of color and unique characters, although it is rarely shown in theaters or as a part of Kurosawa retrospectives, which is perhaps due to its being regarded (unjustly in the opinion of this reviewer) as not being among Kurosawa’s better films. The original film was 240 minutes as cut by Kurosawa, but was cut again after initial release by the distributors to 140 minutes. The cut portions were destroyed.
Kurosawa’s first color film (thanks to the suggestion of Henri Langlois and under the inspiration of some of Eisenstein’s color sequences), this film was made possible by a group of directors, of which Kurosawa was one, calling themselves the Four Knights. The group was originally formed to provide support to Kurosawa who, after 1966, was not under contract with any of the Japanese studios and could not find one which would back his projects, which were generally viewed as being too large and too expensive. The others members of the Four Knights were Keisuke Kinoshita, Masaki Kobayashi, and Kon Ichikawa. They disbanded after the critical failure that was Dodes’ka-Den. This was the only film they made together although another script they worked on before Dodes’ka-Den, a period piece called Dora-Heita (2000) would later be filmed by Kon Ichikawa after Kurosawa’s death.
Dodes’ka-Den is based on a series of short stories by Shugoro Yamamoto from 1962 (A City Without Seasons), whose work was also used by Kurosawa in two other films, Red Beard (1965) and Sanjuro (1962). The screenplay was written in a very short time by Kurosawa together with Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto. Kurosawa notes in a 1970 interview from Kinema Jumpo that they holed up at one of their usual hotels to write, but they were done and left so soon thereafter that the hotel owner, who had hosted them before, thought it was because they did not like his place. He said to them, “From now on, you will only be given the best food!”
Filming started shortly thereafter and was completed in record time, just nine short weeks, on a day reserved for rehearsal. Some have speculated that Kurosawa was under pressure to show that he could work quickly, but it was also the case that the filming went smoothly, by all accounts.
The film’s plot follows numerous characters living in a slum on the outskirts of Tokyo. The film is devoted to showing their humanity, in the midst of difficult lives, as the various characters struggle to find a reason for living. Some, better than others, do their best to help their neighbors find meaning in their lives, while others take what they can get with no regard for their fellow human beings.