(Literally translated, Heaven and Hell. Released worldwide as High and Low.)
Kidnap. Using that as the basic premise, Kurosawa builds a film that explores the theme closest to his heart: humanity. A taut crime thriller cannot run for over two hours without losing steam unless it hints at something beyond its facade that exposes the larger picture, holds up the deeper motive. Kurosawa's criminals are not hardened epitomes of villainy; they are people with a human side: embedded in a history and rising from a background. They are part of the social structure, influencing and upsetting its gigantic machinery even as they are influenced by it.
As the beginning credits role, the camera takes long range shots of downtown Yokohama. The frames encompass factory chimneys and incinerators black with smoke, busy roads, harbour cranes, fast trains, towering scrapers, little specks of light emanating from closely crowded buildings in the distance - a gritty urban demon with its bustling activity. A milieu of people barely discernible yet there: persons having distinct trades and traits. From his spacious apartment on a hill, the faraway landscape looks peaceful to Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune). He is far removed from the industrious city's underbelly; a director of National Shoes and head of production. Three of his fellow directors approach him with a proposal to overthrow the Chairman of the firm, an "Old Man". The trio are hungry for profits, and ready to compromise on quality for that end. Gondo has been in the business for nearly three decades starting out as a teenaged apprentice. Like several other self-made men, he has both business ethic and shrewd cunning (he advises his son that "a man must kill or be killed"). He rejects the fishy proposal because he thinks it dishonest to cheat customers; his dream shoes are neither like the Old Man's outdated "army boots" nor the low-cost stylish use-and-throw variety of his colleagues: a delicate mix of old-world reliability and new-age fashion. Gondo is a man trying to balance out the lingering strains of feudal Japan with the booming urban culture brewing in its cities. He is a man strongly grounded in principles and ideals (while disagreeing with his fellow director's view that women treat both hats and shoes as throwaway accessories, he reminds that "shoes carry the whole weight of the body") yet he has risen above the hum and din of the day-to-day existence that the city folk have to grapple with (his hilltop apartment is a constant reminder of this). The three directors leave fuming at their humiliation. Gondo harbours plans for taking the reins of the firm in his hand - he has been buying stock surreptitiously for years - and a deal he is about to seal will get him enough share to completely overthrow all the other directors. For this he has had to raise a formidable fifty million yen, which he did by lending against all his property. Having concluded the latest buying of stocks on phone, he rejoices seeing his dream within easy reach. The celebrations are however brought to an abrupt halt with, ironically, a phone call: Jun, his son, has been kidnapped. Held against a ransom of thirty million. An extraordinary sum, unprecedented according to police records. A man about to touch his career-high is yanked back with a sudden jerk, yet he does not hesitate to agree to the kidnapper's demand. No success in business compensates for a personal loss. Surprisingly, Jun is safe in his home. Shinichi - the chauffer's son - has been grabbed instead.
Caught between business ambitions and his own conscience, Gondo wrestles with himself over paying the ransom. A police team of four headed by Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) sneak in in disguise to help the family out. Determined not to cave in to sentiments - Aoki's, Jun's, his wife's and most importantly, his own - Gondo tries to justify his decision not to pay with everything he can get a hand at. The circumstances are certainly not favourable. First, the money is acquired on credit. If the police cannot recover the ransom, he is sure to go bankrupt. What's more, all his property - the collateral for the loans - is going to be seized. Second, dishing out the money means that the stock deal does not go through. This means the end of his tenure at National Shoes: the three directors are sure to join forces with the Old Man to boot him out. Third, inspite of his partial affection or concern for Shinichi, he cannot get the rather selfish notion out of his mind that he'll be helping out someone without any blood relation or hope of personal gain. He reasons that even if he could take it rough, Reiko (his wife) would not be able to stand the hardships of starting from scratch, born as she is in luxury. In shabby efforts to console and quieten his own conscience, he repeats time and again that he would not hesitate in helping Shinichi out had the circumstances allowed so, believing in the idea for a few moments before realising with doubled intensity that no logic or argument can stand against the very fact that a human life is on stake. Over a sleepless night, he tries to make his ground steady. Morning finds him stressing that he stands by his decision. Something transpires meanwhile: Kawanishi, his assistant, betrays the secret deal to the other directors for personal gain. The evening before he had noticed Gondo soften enough to throw the deal, and therefore Kawanishi's own career, in jeopardy. Enraged, Gondo becomes determined to follow his heart, now that he has nothing to lose on the business front. When the kidnapper calls in the morning, Gondo agrees to pay the ransom provided Shinichi is shown alive and wholesome during the handover.
These fifty-five minutes shot inside the house - chiefly the living room - are remarkable for some facts. The set is small, so it takes a constant change of camera angles and positions to keep the flow intact (in this aspect similar to Sidney Lumet's classic courtroom drama, 12 Angry Men). The moderate long shots used by Kurosawa capture both Gondo's dilemma and the reactions of his family, Aoki and the cops. The limited space of the setting radiates a sense of claustrophobia that is heightened by the troubling matters pressing upon the protagonist. By a simple placement of the persons within the room, the director achieves a sense of moral distance between Gondo and the others. This is further established with the sparse furnishings of the room, and more importantly, silent dissent: while Gondo tries in vain to justify his decision, the others turn their back towards him and hang their faces down. The silence depicts a deeper sense of disagreement on moral terms than dialogue could have. The policemen are different in their characterisations - a lesser director may have sketched them with a similar brush - Tokura's apparently grudging sympathy is contrasted by the visibly cold disapproval of Taguchi (or Bos'n, as he is affectionately called). Gondo's urgency is deepened by one small reaction: that of Jun, his son. Even if he can silence his own conscience, he just cannot overlook how Jun is anxious to see his friend and holds himself responsible for Shinichi's plight. Aoki's reactions are constantly evolving: his initial silent resignation to fate gives way to a desperate request to his employer. Morning finds him apologising for the excessive burden he demanded of Gondo the night before, then he uncontrollably breaks down into sobs realising his utter helplessness. Mifune's iconic angry expression conveys the violent upheaval inside Gondo: which erupts only for a brief moment when he goes to take a shower, hiding his turbulent inner passions from others. His dilemma is underlined in the impatient way in which he walks and sits throughout the evening. When turning Aoki's request down, he turns towards the drawn curtains. The light behind casts his shadow just face-to-face: as if he were asking his shadow for some solace. The variety and gradual evolution in mindscapes reveal the underlying human crisis effectively. In a very memorable scene, Gondo volunteers the cops in planting detection devices into the briefcases to be used for the barter. He requests his wife to bring his old tool-kit (with which he started as a shoemaking apprentice). Then mumbling to himself "it feels as if I am already starting over", he starts with the job. Awestruck and reverent, everyone in the room silently stands up as they witness the proud self-made millionaire humbly get back to his roots. It's a little snippet of cinematic expression; but one that exposes the humane, emotional side of people who find themselves coping with severe circumstances. It is through small scenes like this that Kurosawa reveals his lifelong pre-occupation in connecting with the conscience and hearts of men and women: his characters and his viewers.
If the first fifty-five minutes center around the "high" half of the story, the other half plunges straight into Yokohama's "low". Connecting these two halves is the train sequence: the exchange. Racily shot (proof for anyone who thinks otherwise that Kurosawa could master fast-paced filmmaking with quick editing and unconventional camera techniques), its highlight is a moment that does not stand out at first glance. Disguised as a civilian passenger, the youngest of the four cops dozes off for a while in the soothing comfort of a luxury train inspite of his better sense, underlining how a grave situation often drives people with very human limitations to assume superhuman responsibilities. He has had not much sleep for almost two days, yet his job demands alert vigilance.
The second half acquaints us to the urban confusion of Yokohama: dominated by crowds thronging in its nightclubs and streets, shady alleys inhabited by drug-addicts letting their lives ebb in misty-eyed stupor, dirty stretches of wasteland dumped with garbage, stinking cesspools adjoining blocks of apartments, mud-splattered markets, and sooty factories. It's a disconcerting picture of a Japan coping from the aftermath of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A society stuck in economic rubble trying to exorcise the phantoms of war. The kidnapper, Ginjiro Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), is one of the less fortunate. A medical intern, he boards in a cluttered tiny studio apartment which has to tolerate the extreme whims of man and nature. From his window, he can see Gondo's plush house on the top of the hill. He can imagine it with its heavenly facilities, away from the suffocating heat and humidity of his own quarters. What however irks him most is that the house high up is a king(o)'s palace: sheltering a man who can control and order his own fate, a bloated manipulator of circumstances. Takeuchi not only envies Gondo, his dislike assumes proportions of a passionate hatred fuelled by a complete ignorance of his victim's character. The kidnap is a ploy to humble the magnate, give him a taste of demeaning poverty. For once, make the dictator of fate helpless. The irony is that Gondo is a rare man who has risen out of the very low Takeuchi finds himself in, surely helped by luck in his sojourn but equally owing his success to intelligence and diligent effort.
The investigation and culmination into the final pindown are captured excellently, with Kurosawa always keeping an eye out to distill the emotional element pervading this cat-and-mouse game. Aoki's gratitude manifests in an urgent need to investigate on his own parallel to police procedures, pressurising a relieved Shinichi more than required to extract key nuggets of information. In a little mentioned scene, Takeuchi (who is being tailed by a sleuth network extending over a whole area) approaches Gondo on the street for a light. The dethroned tycoon looks longingly at a window-display of his beloved shoes. Oblivious to the kidnapper's identity, he obliges. It expresses the almost sadistic glee Takeuchi derives from seeing the man humbled.
Nothing however makes the film memorable as the finale. A jailed kidnapper wishes to see Gondo, whose property has been confiscated (even the clock that doles the advent of a new chapter in his life is auctioned off). He has joined a modest shoemaking firm as co-owner, hoping to compete with National Shoes someday. A wire-mesh and glass screen separate the two: and Kurosawa uses the latter to great effect. The reflection of one character in the glass is held in direct contrast with the juxtaposing face of the other. (Even from a technical POV, it eliminates the need for separate close-ups; capturing two facial expressions in a single frame.) Both of them have roots in the same ground, yet they have chosen to tread different paths. Takeuchi proudly confesses that he is not afraid of death: the chief reason to meet his victim is just to assert his nihilistic view of life. He cannot stand sympathy; his drive to live stemming from the intense hatred of Gondo. Reflections are a common motif in this film - whether it be in Takeuchi's dark shades or the cesspool on which the shadows of both the passing kidnapper and Gondo's mansion fall. They are a connect between the two contrasting poles, High and Low; a symbolic device hinting at introspection, also a mirror of the day's social conditions.
The most troubling ambiguity about the film is its forte: it is not quite made clear why Takeuchi is seized by violent tremors during the final few seconds. Is it because of his realisation that one's fate in heaven or hell is not designed by circumstances but action? Gondo chooses a financial low to a moral low, thereby retaining his position in heaven. Takeuchi chooses hell - a choice he declares he does not repent. Is it because his whole scheme and view is ultimately futile and self-defeating? After all, had it not been for the kidnap, Gondo might have lost his touch with humanity. The episode made him turn a new leaf: embracing hard-work with renewed enthusiasm. Is it because Takeuchi learns a little too late that inspite of his best efforts Gondo is the same as a man, perhaps even closer to his true self? Finally, can we completely dismiss the kidnapper? His life has been spent in grinding poverty and humiliation, rarely giving him time for reflection, twisting ingrained prejudices and hatreds into gigantic proportions. Can we unequivocally blame him? These five ending minutes dramatically change the viewer's perception, leaving him thoughtful even as the last shot has faded away. Like someone said, it is sheer poetry captured in motion. Violent passionate poetry that cuts straight into one's heart.
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