High and Low
Tengoku to jigoku | 天国と地獄// Retrospective: Akira Kurosawa
High and Low opens to a business meeting of sorts between Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) and fellow members of the board of a shoe company. These men have very different ideas for the direction of the company and admit to collusion of a takeover but, unknown to them, Gondo has a plan in place to become majority stockholder before they can consolidate their power. They leave disgusted as we realize we are at the scene of Gondo’s home. His young boy is playing ‘cowboys and indians’ with his chauffeur’s son when suddenly the phone rings. A man claims to have taken Gondo’s son hostage, demanding 30 million yen for his safe return. The boy then appears in the living room without his playmate and it becomes clear that the kidnapper (Tsutomu Yamazaki) has taken the wrong child. Thus, Gondo is presented with a slightly more complicated moral dilemma: give in to the kidnapper’s demands for the sake of another man’s child, an act which will ensure his own financial ruin against the amount he has borrowed, or refuse and risk almost certain violence against the child1.
The question often attached to the film as a tag-line is misleading: “Is a chauffeur’s son worth as much as an industrialist’s?” The dilemma is in fact far more complicated. Gondo is being asked to trade his future security for the momentary security of another’s child. McBain2 has complicated matters by inserting the kidnapping and ransom at a moment when Gondo has mortgaged everything; his life savings rest on a single check for 50 million yen with which he plans to take over National Shoes. So paying the ransom literally means suicide for Gondo, a man whose life worth lies in his work and a fortune acquired through a lifetime of sacrifice. The chauffeur will not be ruined—he can always find work in a different household—but Gondo certainly will; the equation of Gondo’s ruin necessarily includes the ruin of his family and the security of his child. So for Gondo it comes to another man’s child for his own, which is a far more difficult choice than it may seem at first blush. The two suitcases with 9,000 notes are equal to Gondo’s life.
Tengoku to jigoku, literally “Heaven and Hell”, presents a dichotomy used by Kurosawa to conveniently divide his film into two parts. It is a deceptive dichotomy—one that could be construed as more of a dialectic for there certainly exists interplay across this division—for Kurosawa emphasizes the penetration of each setting; the heaven of the Gondo household is manipulated by the kidnapper and the hell of Yokohama is intercepted by the police acting on Gondo’s behalf. Each setting is in part controlled by the gaze of the denizens of the other. The first half takes place within the Gondo household, which offers a ready view of its quarter of Yokohama, its harbor and its Chinatown where U.S. sailors patronize the clubs and the heroin dens that will figure in the film’s conclusion; the second half is set in the lower plane of the kidnappers’ milieu, whose vista includes the great bluff where Gondo’s house rests. The kidnapper bridges the distance with his binoculars, in addition to the phone calls, as the police dispatch their eyes from headquarters.
The set constructed for the Gondo home is prosaic at first glance. It is in fact three sets, one constructed on a real hilltop over Yokohama for daylight scenes where the curtain will be open, and the other two studio facsimiles. The living room set is mostly framed diagonally due to two tracks being laid like a protractor (opening toward the set) at a 90-degree angle with another track in between. Tracking is subtle, as indeed all movements are for the camera moves very little. This half of the film is almost theatrical; the frame is wholly the proscenium. And in this half Kurosawa uses deep-focus almost exclusively with the full, or long, shot to exaggerate space as the living room is lensed from every conceivable pitch and angle by the three cameras. Compositionally, Kurosawa frames his characters—sitting, standing, moving—in every possible configuration, like a flitting tableaux. The Gondo home is immense and Kurosawa will demonstrate that its expanse bears responsibility, in part, for the actions of the kidnapper.
A breathtaking bullet train sequence neatly bridges the two halves. Gondo is ready to deliver the ransom, expecting to travel on the train to a predetermined location—then the kidnapper phones the trolley and tells Gondo that he will come to a bridge over a river with the boy on one side and an accomplice on the other awaiting the drop. This did not figure into the calculations of the police, but they do have on-hand three 8mm cameras to try to capture as much detail as possible. So Kurosawa shoots the detectives shooting the drop as they pass by it. This is an inversion of the classic Kurosawa quick-motion pan—this time the cameras are positioned on a moving subject as it darts past the stationary objects of its gaze. After the long static drama of the first half, this four-minute scene is exhilarating with its free cuts and fluid movements. Kurosawa employs nine roving cameras, mostly hand-held, for this scene to capture every gaze and reaction, including Gondo’s pained expression when he finally slides the suitcases out of the narrow washroom window. Expert editing reduces it to the necessary action, giving it the fluidity of real-time and the fixity of crisis. In short order the boy is recovered, Gondo meets with his merciless creditors and the newspapers report on public sympathy for Gondo’s plight. Now we descend to hell.
The rest is basically a police procedural shot with the same meticulousness employed in the early living room scenes, except now the action is freed up and Kurosawa lets loose every cinematic weapon in his arsenal. Kurosawa seems more concerned with the ‘how’ than the ‘why’, even though the former will lead us to the latter. Details flow rapidly. We are treated to a half-hour of detectives reporting to their superiors on details of the case, and we often see the pictorial course of their investigations as they summarize the results in voice-over. The capture and eventual confrontation are the focus. Mirrors, drawings, charts, reflections and film figure into the investigation and the thrill of discovery as the hunt is consummated, piece by piece. It’s a thrilling section, and it impresses upon us the world that the kidnapper occupies. Kurosawa shoots much of the latter half from the knee, as he shot Gondo’s domain from the hip or shoulder.
There is a nice bit of inner conflict for the police officers toward the end. Though they could go ahead and arrest him, the police are trying to get the kidnapper pegged for two murders in addition to the kidnapping, but a miscalculation leads to another murder under their watch. It’s been said many times that the closing minutes are fraught with confusion and conflation of egos; Gondo on one side of the thick glass, the kidnapper on the other, their faces overlapping one another through the translucent surface between them. The kidnapper has something of Dostoevsky in him and his confrontation with Gondo results in one of the most intense and enigmatic endings ever.
The dilemma at the heart of the story can be affecting, as can the character of Gondo or the kidnapper, but Kurosawa’s ambiguity betrays the fact that seeing and ways of seeing are tantamount considerations. The police have counted the serial numbers of every ransom note, which ensures that the kidnapper cannot spend them (ironic, the portion he does spend goes toward the dope he uses to kill his accomplices, eventually earning him the death penalty); these notes are the eyes of the police on the kidnapper, as are the suitcases with their concealed contents.
The key contention of the second half seems to be the perception of Gondo’s actions by all involved as well as the public at large, the political consequences of a personal crisis. The police eventually admire Gondo’s integrity and the newspapers praise him. The ironic current at work increasingly as the film wears on is summarized in the reaction shots of the kidnapper as he reads the newspaper and again when he faces Gondo at the film’s conclusion; he is patently shocked at the moral support Gondo has received, expecting nothing less than ridicule and a class-inflected spite from the public. Had he kidnapped Gondo’s child that is almost certainly what would have followed, but instead he took a poor man’s child and had a wealthy industrialist foot the bill. This can be read as a polemic against lower-class values in the vein of Ayn Rand. The kidnapper’s revealed weltanschauung in the closing scene confirms it, as does the film’s construction.
1 The deciding factor seems to be the betrayal by his once loyal secretary, Kawanishi (Tatsuya Mihashi), which means that his coup attempt may not work anyway. And even if it does succeed, as Kawanishi points out, the public will be outraged at Gondo’s unwillingness to pay the ransom and will not buy his shoes. His decision to pay follows shortly after his confrontation with Kawanishi.
2 Ed Mcbain, the author of “King’s Ransom” upon which the screenplay is based.