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September 1, 2009

As you might have already surmised from previous posts, I have a passion for classic foreign cinema.  In particular, films that have had a tremendous impact on shaping movie-making and culture around the world, and whose impact has been felt here in America, though the average movie-goer may be unaware of its subtle influence.  I recently watched an excellent Japanese film from The Criterion Collection, Tengoku To Jigoku.  Although it has been translated in America as High and Low, which is a very fitting title, as I will explain momentarily, a more literal translation would be Heaven and Hell.  Like I said, High and Low works well because of the themes director Akira Kurosawa explores in social class and morality.  Even the film is divided into two distinct halves that can be seen as the high and the low of the title.  It is an expertly crafted thriller that literally had me on the edge of my seat from the tension, but left me a great deal to ponder as well, and it was a visual feast to behold.  I would easily rank it in my top ten of all time, and I don’t say that lightly.

As briefly as I can relay it, Kingo Gondo is an executive in a shoe company that is passionate about his work.  He started in the factory as a boy and has worked his way all the way to the top.  His fellow executives are the greedy corporate types who desire to make mass-produced crappy shoes that will fall apart quickly.  In a bid to take over the company, Gondo has been mortgaging everything he owns and secretly arranging to buy up enough stock to have the majority stake.  He is about to send his assistant with the cash to finalize the deal when he receives a horrific phone call.  His son has been kidnapped and the ransom is exorbitant.  It is an easy choice for him to sacrifice his aspirations for the life of his child, until his son runs in the door.  The kidnappers have made a mistake.  Instead of his own son, they have grabbed his son’s playmate, the child of his chaffeur.  Now he is left with a difficult decision:  does he pay the ransom to save the another man’s son at the expense of his own family’s financial ruin?

Like I said, there are two distinct acts to this film and I don’t want to give anything away but amidst all of the tension as Gondo and the police race to save the boy and find the kidnappers, the film truly centers around the characterization of Gondo himself.  Even when he is not on screen, his presence dominates and propels the rest of the film.  That is largely due to impressive acting by Toshiro Mifune, one of the greats of Japanese cinema.  Though not the first film I have seen with him in a contemporary setting (that would be Kurosawa’s corporate greed piece The Bad Sleep Well), he is almost universally known for his samurai period pieces, where he displays such intensity as the savage yet noble warrior.  It is shocking to say the least to witness him in such subdued fury in a three-piece suit.  But he shines so magnificently and he sells the film’s story and Kurosawa’s subtle questions on society.  The first act is almost entirely and claustrophobically confined to Gondo’s living room as he and the police task force, led by actor Tatsuya Nakadai, frantically deal with the kidnapper through phone conversations.  The second act turns into police procedural, as the task force begins tracking down leads to a criminal that they have little hope of finding.  Although most reviews emphasize the masterful handling of the first act, it is the second act that shines in my opinion as a true achievement in storytelling.

In this first of two posts, I just want to share my thoughts on the first half of the film.  I would highly recommend watching this film first and then reading the rest of my review.  So from here on, beware of *******************************************SPOILERS*********************************************

In the first part of the film we see the upper class of Japanese society through rich executive Kingo Gondo.  But what makes him such a compelling and sympathetic figure is the fact that he didn’t originate in this strata of society.  We learn that he started out as a young boy working in the shoe factory.  Through hard work and determination he worked his way up, married a trophy wife, and lives in lush comfort.  But he is not driven by money but by his passion for his work.  This is so telling when his fellow executives try to recruit him into their scheme to control the company.  They care nothing about shoes or the people who buy them.  They desire to make a cheap product that won’t last long, forcing people to buy their shoes with greater frequency and making a greater profit off each pair of shoes by using such poor quality material.  Gondo instantly makes an enemy of them as he rebukes their foolishness.  He is intimate with every step of creating these shoes, and desires to make a high-quality product that they can be proud of, that will last long, look good, and give comfortable support.  With this information in hand, we know that his scheme to control the company is not driven out of ego and greed, but a desire to protect the company from these men.  I’ve read numerous reviews of the film that either take amusement in the plot basis of this struggle of power within a shoe company, or openly ridicule it, but it really carries great weight.  As the film examines the conflict that exists between the high and low ends of society, the centrality of the shoe company emphasizes the commonality of all men of every class.  They all are united in their need to wear shoes, shoes that will provide them support and comfort and protect their feet.  It is another layer of symbolism in the film.

We also understand Gondo’s dilemma and sympathize with him.  He is not heartless by any means as he initially resolves to not pay the ransom for his chaffeur’s son.  He has literally bet everything on this deal to control the company, borrowing money and mortgaging all he has.  To pay this ransom will literally ruin his family and leave them with nothing.  It will also leave him vulnerable to be voted out of the shoe company by his rivals.  After hearing of his predicament, even his chaffeur tells him not to pay, because he can’t bare the shame of being responsible for his boss’ ruin.  It makes Gondo all the more noble and relatable when he makes his decision to save the boy.  It endears him to the detective and his men and fills them with the resolve to do whatever it takes to get him his money back.  For all of his gruff exterior, the revealing moment for Gondo is seen in the utter joy and relief he displays during the tense money trade-off from a bullet train when he sees that the boy is alive and unharmed.

This encounter is so expertly crafted on a real moving train and the jarring impact of leaving the confines of the Gondo family living room drives home the sense of vulnerability and unease that permeates the officers as they watch Gondo, who is a blank slate, lost in deep thought until the sight of the boy opens him up to a wave of emotion.  Again, I’ve read a lot of complaints that the film loses its cohesiveness from this point on, seeing as how the boy has been recovered and the situation resolved.  I disagree.  We have become too conditioned by modern film that condescends to our intelligence.  We feel we need a simple package of conflict resolution and then happy ending follows.  Not only is life much more complicated than this, but film should be too.  Gondo’s family still hangs in the balance as his aide sells him out to his enemies on the board in the midst of the negotiations with the kidnapper and they force him out of the company.  And it is in the second half that Kurosawa is able to fully address the misgivings he has on the divisiveness of society through social class that truly drives the film.  More on the second half will have to wait until tomorrow though.

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