08 May 2012

Kurosawa's Economic Growth Ethical Deathtrap

Akira Kurosawa's reputation as a world-class director is based first of all on his samurai films in general and two films in particular that many rate in the top echelon of film classics: 'Rashomon' (1950) and 'The Seven Samurai' (1954), both historical dramas of medieval Japan and fascinating studies of human behavior using the conventions (and pretensions) of the warrior genre. Perhaps less well-known are his social realist films, including 'High and Low' (AKA 'Tengoku to jigoku,' or 'Heaven and Hell'), which provides a commentary on the history of globalization and reflects changes in the workplace. On the surface 'High and Low' is a kidnapping film, but transcends its police procedural genre because of its economic and cultural weight.


Through clever financial maneuvering, Kingo Gondo (played by Toshiro Mifune), an executive in a big shoe company, is poised to seize control of the entire company. He has set aside a significant sum of money to accomplish this, but just as he is to launch his takeover bid, his son is kidnapped and the ransom requested is of course his takeover money. He and his hitherto devoted wife face a complex dilemma when they learn that the child kidnapped is actually his son's playmate, their chauffeur's son, because of a mistaken identification. Now the moral dilemma is sharp: is he willing to use his money for another person's son?

High and Low is an exquisite rendition of a relentless Japanese theme: private morality versus public loyalties. The resolution of this dilemma has led to Japan's industrial success, as suggested in a Washington Post review by Paul Attanasio, who highlights the 'general dilemma of modern Japanese life--the conflict between humane values and the rigid loyalties that have made for its commercial success.' The fact that Gondo hesitates at all convinces his wife to pack her bags and one of his previously loyal business subordinates to betray him.


Although the film seems so rooted in Japanese culture, one might be surprised to discover that it is actually a fairly close adaptation of Ed McBain's King's Ransom, from his 87th Precinct mystery series. Kurosawa does transform the novel's American CEO, who is quite contemplative in his unwillingness to give up on his takeover aims, into an obviously conflicted individual who eventually agrees to do the right thing, and he adds the urban geographical divisions that highlight the economic divide of the principal characters captured in some fascinating camera angles. Thus the kidnapper in the working-class, crowded tenements in the city spies with a telescope on the hilltop estate of the shoe executive. Both film and novel retain the corporate dance that executives and their underlings engage in: what seems on the surface to be so characteristically Japanese in Kurosawa's vision turns out to be part of the American corporate scene, at least filtered through Ed McBain's somewhat hard-boiled approach to all human relationships.


In the 1950s Japan's economic growth was phenomenal--almost 10 percent a year. Kurosawa's film reacts to that growth with an ethical deathtrap. Impossible to predict is Japan's next step onto the global stage, but Kurosawa set his film in Yokohama, Japan's leading port city for over a hundred years and one of the Japanese cities then most intertwined with foreign business and culture. This was pointed out by Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, in his detailed analysis of the film in Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, who also notes an emphasis on certain psychological traits shared by the CEO and the kidnapper and that 'the spatial organization of the city partly accounts' for the kidnapper's act. Kurosawa continued to challenge his audiences with films about both high (Ran, 1985, an aging warlord turns his kingdom over to his son) and low (Dodeskaden, 1970, set in a shantytown).

[This review was written by Tom Zaniello and was originally published in The Cinema of Globalization: A Guide to Films about the New Economic Order (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2007, pp. 90-92). It has been slightly edited for inclusion on TV Multiversity. Additional clips from the film, some with English subtitles, are available on the TV Multiversity World Cinema YouTube playlistHigh and Low was released in 1963, runs 143 minutes, and is available on DVD in the original Japanese with English subtitles.]

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