Saturday, February 07, 2015

Tonight's Movie: High and Low (1963)

This year my pal Kristina of Speakeasy has made her own list of 10 Classics to see for the first time in 2015, and we decided we'd try to simultaneously watch and review at least a couple of films from each other's lists. This plan will expose each of us to even more great movies and hopefully help us both stay on track reviewing the films steadily over the course of the year instead of watching half in December, as I tend to do!

The first film we watched in tandem was Akira Kurosawa's HIGH AND LOW (1963). You can read Kristina's take on the movie at Speakasy. It's a great review so be sure to check it out. We each responded strongly to many of the same things which was interesting too.

I was interested in HIGH AND LOW since seeing the poster at the upper left in Kristina's 10 Classics post. HIGH AND LOW, originally titled TENGOKU TO JIGOKU in Japan, is a suspense thriller/police procedural about a ransom case, and I couldn't be happier that I decided to watch it along with Kristina this weekend. It was absolutely terrific, one of the films I've enjoyed most so far this year. It's a great candidate for my 2015 "Favorite Discoveries" list.

Toshiro Mifune plays Kingo Gondo, a self-made man who has climbed up through the ranks at National Shoe Factory. He is battling the board of directors (including Nobuo Nakamura, who was in some Ozu films) but has secretly increased his shares of stock and has just mortgaged everything in order to buy enough additional shares to take over the company.

Just as Gondo is about to close the deal, he receives a call that his son Jun (Toshio Egi) has been kidnapped for ransom. Desperation gives way to relief when Jun walks into the room moments later...but everyone quickly realizes that Shinichi (Masahiko Shimazu), the son of Gondo's chauffeur (Yutaka Sada), was mistakenly kidnapped instead. Who is behind the crime, and will Gondo sacrifice a lifetime of work for a child who's not his own?

That's only part of the story; the last two-thirds of the film is a riveting detective procedural as the local police force mobilizes to find the kidnapper. Tatsuya Nakadai plays Chief Detective Tokura, with additional detectives played by Kenjirô Ishiyama, Isao Kimura, Takeshi Katô, and Takashi Shimura.

This was such an excellent film, I suspect I will want to watch it again before too long in order to take in more of the details. The movie runs two hours and 23 minutes yet my attention didn't wane for a moment.

One of the things I loved most was the film's sleek black and white look -- other than one fantastic shot tinted in color. The movie was filmed by Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito. In terms of both look and theme, the film reminded me somewhat of Blake Edwards' great film of the era about an extortion case in San Francisco, EXPERIMENT IN TERROR (1962). The '60s era and polite yet savage business warfare also calls to mind TV's MAD MEN.

Mifune is excellent as a tough man who must make a life-changing decision in a short time frame. Does he take what might be a principled stand not to negotiate with a hostage taker -- despite the fact he was ready to ransom his own son -- and in so doing preserve his business and his family's lifestyle? Or should he risk everything to spare the life of a child?

The police in the film are so efficient that I wondered at first if they were the criminals, as they cleverly show up at Gondo's house dressed as delivery men in order not to tip off the suspect if he's watching. I especially liked Tatsuya Nakadai as the calm but determined head of the investigation.

One of my favorite scenes takes place at the police station, when various detectives stand up to report what they've learned, with brief flashbacks as they speak. It's a long yet beautifully managed sequence which somehow is downright exciting despite the fact it's basically just a large group of people giving reports.

Even the English title of the film is perfect, with its double meaning referring to searching high and low for the killer as well as the changes in Gondo's business and social status. The Japanese title apparently actually translates to HEAVEN AND HELL.

I was interested the Westernization depicted in the film; for instance, Gondo lives in a minimally furnished but very Western home.  A standout piece of decor is a clock which plays Westminster Chimes. It was an interesting contrast with the films I've seen so far directed by Yasujiro Ozu, where Westernization is an ongoing theme yet most of the characters still live in homes which are more traditionally Japanese.

My only disappointment was the final scene, which was somewhat baffling -- but perhaps that was the point, that for some things there's no rhyme or reason.

As a side note, I often have difficulty with "child in danger" stories, but that aspect is handled with a light enough touch (i.e., no scenes with a child in terror) that I was fine with the film in that regard.

HIGH AND LOW is available on DVD and Blu-ray from the Criterion Collection. I watched it via Amazon Instant Video streaming.

There's a Kurosawa film starring Mifune on my own 2015 10 Classics list, THE HIDDEN FORTRESS (1958). But first, stay tuned for our reviews of Ernst Lubitch's THE SMILING LIEUTENANT (1932) at the end of the month!


Blogger Kristina said...

Wonderful movie, wasn't it? So glad you joined in watching and that we ended up discovering such a fabulous picture! Interesting but not surprising that we were impressed by so many of the same images and moments. I was really struck by the unique structure of the movie, distinctly segmented and all of it equally interesting. Moves so smoothly and quickly for such a long film too.

I really see this movie's influence on later movies in this genre that I like (thinking of Zodiac especially) always great to trace those origins as a movie buff.

Great fun sharing this exciting find and looking forward to the next one :) best!

5:17 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

It really was, Kristina! I've often said that I tend to prefer shorter movies but then there's a longer movie like this which keeps you glued for every minute.

It's interesting about the influence you picked up since I haven't seen many films in this genre made after the mid '60s or so.

Hope some of our readers will check out this film and find it as enjoyable as we did.

This really was fun!!

Best wishes,

5:23 PM  
Blogger Mike's Take on the Movies said...

Glad you both picked this film. It's perhaps the greatest moral dilemma on film. Mifune was such a tower of strength on film and it's no wonder he's referred to as the "John Wayne" of Japanese cinema. It's been quite a while but looking back I usually refer to The Hidden Fortress as my favorite of their collaborations so enjoy that one for sure.

6:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow! This sounds like a great film I will have to keep an eye out for!

8:37 AM  
Blogger Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

This sounds fascinating. Loved your review.

9:32 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Glad you really enjoyed it Laura. This is my favorite of the many Kurosawa films I've seen. And it's very accessible to an English-speaking audience too.
Mifune,as usual is brilliant, but Nakadai really impresses me more. I read awhile back that Kurosawa wanted Nakadai to play the investigator like Henry Fonda and went so far as to have him shave his hairline so he more closely resembled Fonda. I'm a bit surprised, with his good looks Hollywood didn't come calling.
The bullet train scene perfectly buffers the two distinct halves and is a marvel of editing and cinematography.
As to the ending, there was to be wrap-up scene with Mifne and Nakadai in the hallway of the jail after Mifune's visit with the kidnapper. Although that would been the most common choice to end it on, I think it's more powerful how Kurosawa uses that last shot of the screen coming down as the finale.

12:59 PM  
Blogger Blake Lucas said...

If you never saw a Kurosawa movie before, I have to say you started at the right place--the top!

I've seen most of his movies and this masterpiece was always my favorite. Great in every way, and not many movies in this genre from any country as good.

I also read Kristina's excellent piece which was very complementary to yours. I don't need another blog to follow but I guess I might have to. After reading many of her comments here, I finally read a piece of hers because it was in the Randolph Scott Blogathon. That one--on "Supernatural"--was so good, one of the Blogathon's best, just because it was so so well-written and evoked that movie so well; I haven't seen it and it made me want to. And now this one by her was equally good. (And guess I should make a comment there but hopefully she will see this).

Now back to "High and Low" for a moment. The one thing I disagree with you about is the ending. For me, that powerful last scene, with the reflections putting the two characters in the same frame, and the wonderful dialogue between them, sealed the greatness of the film. It especially underscored the Dostoyevskian level that it carries so easily beneath its thriller narrative.

For me, the title refers in the end not to the status
of the two men but to what they ARE as men (and I think Kristina addressed this a little in her piece though didn't seem to love the ending either). For what makes Mifune's character "high" is not that he lived in a house on the hill and so was someone the kidnapper envied in his fantasy of him--it is because he has moral stature and self-confidence, could do the right thing, then go to a small shoe company and start over, calmly working to build it up as he had done before with the other. Meanwhile, the kidnapper would always only be "low" because of his sensibility and world view in which he would blame his unhappiness on others rather than really take responsibility for his own life.

So I think the title--and last scene--perfectly convey what this film winds up being most deeply about.

Just a word about Tatsuya Nakadai, who you rightfully liked as lead detective. One of the great actors of Japanese cinema, he knows how to underplay to great effect, and if you can possibly ever get ready for a movie called "Harakiri" you should see it at least for his performance--but also because it too is one of the best Japanese movies.

1:52 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Now Voyaging and Jacqueline, hope very much you'll enjoy this film too. :)

Larry, thanks for your comments. What an interesting anecdote about Nakadai. It was rather a Fonda-esque role -- or Glenn Ford like, as I again I saw some symmetry with EXPERIMENT IN TERROR. For Ford and Nakadai are very reassuring characters once they are on the job, with quiet determination. I'd enjoy seeing more of Nakadai's work.

Best wishes,

2:34 PM  
Blogger Laura said...


Thanks so much for your comments. I love the way you describe the contrast of the two characters at the end -- that's a depiction of "high" and "low" which hadn't yet occurred to me. The title has so many meanings! The original translation also makes a lot of sense -- the criminal representing hell and the noble Mifune its opposite.

The title HARAKIRI does sound a bit daunting (grin), but I would definitely like to see more of Nakadai's work, he was very appealing.

I'm really delighted you enjoyed Kristina's writing on both HIGH AND LOW and SUPERNATURAL. She's a gifted writer whose descriptions and analyses of films really bring them to life. Definitely plan on making her Speakeasy blog a regular stop. :)

Best wishes,

2:39 PM  
Blogger Kristina said...

Blake, many thanks for your kind compliments on my writing, I really appreciate that! (and Laura too for your compliments).

Blake you put SO perfectly what I was reaching for in my comments about the ending’s message, regarding the two men’s characters being high vs low. That’s exactly my feeling about them and even though I felt the last part was a little weaker than I was expecting, it still very strongly communicated their characters to me (and let’s face it a movie like this challenges and changes my expectations). My low opinion of the kidnapper’s excuse, his misguided hatred of Mifune, and his not taking responsibility for his life, as you say, just made him revolting to me, but again I have to separate that from the impact and quality of that scene. I think that (referring to Larry’s comment) it is effective in the abrupt way it ends, because as I came to realize, it’s realistic that some terrible things never have a good “explanation.” The point is what you do with that reality. As you know, so much to think about and it’ll need another (few) viewings to take it all in.

Absolutely agree that this is a masterpiece, so glad I watched it! Comments and discussions like the ones here are the bonus, another mark of a Great Film.

Best to all :)

3:07 PM  
Blogger Laura said...

Kristina, thanks to you for picking this movie! I'm so glad I had time to watch it this weekend and that we could jointly enjoy our first time seeing it.

So true that a great movie like this is not enjoyable simply watching it, but in reflecting on it and discussing it after the fact.

Best wishes,

7:35 PM  

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