Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Fortune and sons: High and Low

The English title given to Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 epic yet bracing kidnapping thriller and corporate critique is not accurate--he original translates as Heaven and Hell--but it’s better, or in any case appropriate on so many levels as to excuse its liberties. The film’s brilliantly rendered settings, from a shoe manufacturing executive’s deluxe, air-conditioned, ultra-Westernized mansion that looks down on Yokohama, to the industrial city’s dank, smoggy bed of low-lying refuse; from the cramped toilet of a bullet train speeding across a bridge to the anonymous grassy knoll far below to which briefcases of ransom money are tossed, High and Low shifts vertiginously between altitudes and class. Kurosawa himself was straddling “high” and “low” culture; he had previously adapted Shakespeare, Gorky and Dostoyevsky, was now working with considerably less elevated literary material: King’s Ransom, one of American author Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series of thrillers. And not one of the better ones.

Dramatic dichotomies abound in High and Low, right down to its stunning black and white (with one audacious exception) photography. Kurosawa was now three years into working with his own production company and was coming off a string of some of his finest and most enduringly popular middle-period films (Yojimbo among them); working hard to utilize the widescreen aspect ratio in as imaginative and fluent a manner possible, he had begun to forge what would become the signature camera style of the remainder of his career. He was at the top of his game, and could make such bold transitions with complete confidence. High and Low is one of his very best modern-dress films, and is now available on a gorgeous-looking, well-supplemented new blu-ray and DVD reissue from the Criterion Collection.

High and Low hits the ground running, with high tensions and thorny moral conundrums unfurling in its first scenes. Just as Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune, moustached, still terse and bullying, but with his characteristic bluster largely tucked into designer suits) is about to stake everything he owns--and he owns a lot--into clandestinely buying up shares so he can stage a take-over of the shoe company he works for, he gets a phone call that draws everything to a halt. His son has been kidnapped, and the ransom is very high. (Say goodbye to that corporate coup.) But soon his son enters the room--they kidnapped his chauffer’s kid by accident! Does Gondo still pay the enormous sum, even for a child that’s not his own? Is it worth throwing away his chance at advancement--perhaps throwing away everything? The immediate drama that unfolds, involving negotiations, elaborate arrangements and police involvement, is engrossing. And only about half of the movie. High and Low just keeps careening into different directions, and all the while it comments on Japan’s adoption of ruthless capitalism and peculiar ambivalence toward foreign influence.

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