Saturday, July 22, 2006

Kurosawa's "High and Low"

Just watched this. WOW. It's almost two films in one. The first is like a play, all set in a living room where the amazing Toshiro Mifune (many have commented on how weird it is not to see him in samurai garb) must come to a difficult moral decision. He has just mortgaged everything he has to buy controlling rights in the company where he works when he receives a phone call that his son has been kidnapped and the ransom is almost the same amount as the cost of the shares. Then he finds that the kidnappers have mistakenly taken his chauffeurs's son, not his. If he pays the money he's ruined. If he doesn't... The police are brought in and stand impotently like some Greek chorus while Mifune struggles with the decision. The most agonizing character is the chauffeur himself. He brought in his son's sweater before they realized that he'd been taken and he stands helplessly clutching it. His body language conveys such grief and defeat. Mifune (I read after) was 5'9" but he has such presence. The chauffeur is the shortest, slightest man in the room. The story is based on an Ed McBaine (aka Evan Hunter) novel of the 87th precinct called King's Ransom which would be more clever if the character were not actually named King. By all accounts it's a straightforward detective novel, but in Kurosawa's hands it becomes a study of Japan and of all human nature. In the mix are the pieces of Japanese culture. The movie was made in 1963. The men are dressed as I have pictures of my father and uncle dressing at that time. The wife, at the beginning, is in kimono because she was entertaining her husband's business friends but with western hairstyle. Later in the film she is entirely in western clothes. Even though he's made this gamble with their fortune he has not consulted her and the decision to pay the ransom is all his. The chauffeur begs for the money at one point, bowing down to his knees and finally falling to the floor. Then later he tells Mifune that Mifune must not ruin himself for his son--trying to put on a brave face and "Be in his place." He is the lesser man--he must not ask for favors, but when he walks out of the room he slumps with grief. It's agonizing. Mifune decides to pay the ransom, climax of that section. Then it becomes a much more straightforward police drama--like an early CSI, we watch them work with their limited technology, step by step--hand held movie cameras held above their heads trying to catch a glimpse of the kidnapper. The child is returned and Mifune clutches him weeping, but now the hunt is on for the villain and the money. They follow clue after clue, the sound of a trolley car in the recording of the kidnapper on the phone, payphones located where they can still see Mifune's house on the hill, etc. The kidnapper kills his accomplices, but the police manage to hide the fact that the accomplices are dead to lure him out. They track him as he buys more heroin (the accomplices were addicts). There is a scene where he goes to the alley where the junkies hide that could be straight from the recent "Sin City" except that it's all just excellent camera work, not CGI. The lights glint off of his glasses, his victim trembles in the throws of the drug. Amazing visually! And then he's caught, and the reason that he targeted Mifune is finally revealed--freezing in his hovel in winter and boiling in summer he would look up to the great house on the hill and hate whoever lived there in heaven while he lived in hell. But the irony is that Mifune's character is good--standing against the greed in his corporation, paying for his chauffeur's son, a self-made man himself. Brilliant social commentary by Kurosawa, slightly manipulative, but not too heavy-handed. The particular class struggles of Japan woven into this American story, and yet made universal. There is an interesting scene in an American bar that is instantly louder and brighter and wilder than any other scene--America.
I haven't watched a lot of Kurosawa's domestic pieces (I think I've seen all of the Samurai epics) but everytime I do I am blown away by his skill. It frustrates me to speak with Anime and Japanese horror fans who've never seen a Kurosawa--the master. It also makes me crazy when I speak to supposed film fans who haven't seen his work. They are superb.

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