Highly reminiscent of his moody police thriller Stray Dog (1949), which addressed Japan’s social deterioration as a consequence of its Second World War defeat and the ongoing U.S. occupation, Tengoku to Jigoku—literally, Heaven and Hell, but softened to High and Low for U.S. consumption—remains Akira Kurosawa’s clearest indictment of U.S. intrusion in Japanese society and culture. Three American instruments are his film’s especial targets, although all three are seen as interrelated: capitalism, crime, drugs. The film thus emerges as a powerful and bleak social portrait amidst the “economic miracle” of Japan’s that found the United States propagandizing for both its own alleged generosity in giving a leg up to defeated adversaries and the invigorating capacity of capitalism. Kurosawa lacks the satiric bite of Shohei Imamura (Pigs and Battleships, 1961), but his excellent film provides sufficient evidence to brand American influence in particular, and an influx of mass culture in general, as disastrous for Japan—so much so, in fact, that even some of Japan’s more recent turmoil, with Japanese youth uncharacteristically unleashing a reign of homicidal terror that is savaging two of the hallmarks of Japanese culture and society, low crime and filial respect for authority, can largely, if indirectly, be laid at the doorstep of the United States.
Moreover, Kurosawa has elected to present his views in an absorbing, highly entertaining form: a detective thriller claiming a low literary basis in a popular American work, King’s Ransom, one of Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels—a winking way for Kurosawa to negotiate a path between his underlying theme, American corruption, and the too great an interest in things Western with which, at home, he had often been charged. The result is a work of cool irony rather than tortured (and tortuous) ambivalence.
One sweltering summer, Yokohama, early sixties: a child is kidnapped—but not the actual target, who had been playing with the confiscated boy. The intended victim, safe at home, is the son of a wealthy shoe manufacturer, Kingo Gondo, and his wife, Reiko. The kidnapped boy is the son of Gondo’s chauffeur, Aoki, from whom the kidnapper, even when apprised of his mistake, demands a huge ransom. By coincidence, the industrialist has just raised the exact amount of money that the kidnapper wants—but for other use: to buy up stock in his own firm, in order to block an imminent internal take-over by a faction lacking loyalty to the company’s tradition of quality and motivated only by profits. Having borrowed on all his assets, Gondo would have to abandon this attempt altogether if he is to turn the money over to the kidnapper in exchange for his employee’s son. Thus he initially refuses to accede to Reiko’s pleas on Aoki’s behalf. But wait: wouldn’t not paying the ransom place him morally in the takeover camp? Gondo consents to the payment, moved by his wife’s faith in him to do the humane thing and by a deeper definition of Japan than the national economic recovery his company’s success reflects. The result: once the kidnapped child is safely returned, Gondo is a public hero. The police, however, recover the ransom money too late to save Gondo from being squeezed out of his company. In the new order dictated by the logic of American capitalism, renewed humanity comes at a terrible price. Ruined, Gondo and his wife will begin again.
Transcending its police genre, Heaven and Hell explores the human condition, morally and socioeconomically, in a renewed postwar Japan. The exchange of ransom for victim, and the painstaking investigative work of the police, mesmerize; but the soul of the film is a harrowing descent into the warped soul of a teeming Westernized city, where, convinced that his two drug-addicted accomplices, whom he murdered, have survived, Ginji Takeuchi, the kidnapper, prepares to repeat—and thus reconstruct for the police surveiling him—the double murder. Ending with his arrest, the journey takes Takeuchi through phosphorescent streets and nightspots and an inner circle of lost souls, a heroin addict shelter, where—simply to test his weapon—the boy commits a third murder, all the while his every move being monitored by a network of police folding and unfolding around him. Sordid reality appears surreal; Jeffersonian disgust seems to hover in heavy air.
The film contrasts two males: the respectable, middle-aged industrialist; Ginji, an impoverished young medical student. The former lives in a lovely house, full of sunlight, high and aloof on top of a hill; the latter, in a boxed-in, sunless tenement shack, amidst filth and hectic poverty. Taunted by a telescopic sight of Gondo’s clean, high house, which he describes as “heaven,” Ginji devises his plot to kidnap the industrialist’s son. At the same time, from its lofty vantage, the vast sliding glass door of Gondo’s air-conditioned living room looks down upon a panorama of anonymous cramped quarters, blurred by oppressive heat, far, far below. Kurosawa thus uses the two homes and their milieus to characterize the two men. However, helping the film to avoid becoming overly schematic is the complex, largely admirable nature given Gondo by Toshirô Mifune, a number of whose performances for Kurosawa—in Rashômon (1950), The Idiot (1951), Seven Samurai (1954), Record of a Living Being (1955), Throne of Blood (1957), Yojimbo (1961), Red Beard (1965)—rank among the greatest in cinema. (Mifune also played the lead detective in Stray Dog.) Gondo—this is a reference to Japan’s devastation—began with little; his energy and vision helped him prevail. Even here, though, the film reflects on capitalism’s randomness and reliance on luck; for had it not been for good fortune (which included in his case a well-heeled spouse), Gondo also might have found himself in desperate circumstance. The casting underscores the point; twenty-six then, close to the outset of a still flourishing career, Tsutomu Yamazaki electrifyingly plays Ginji, who resembles Gondo—and a younger, leaner Mifune.* This helps collapse the contrast between the two characters. Condemned to die, the boy asks that Gondo see him in prison. Their confrontation is the film’s heart-jolting, haunting finish: two look-alikes, one older and heftier, facing each other in a dark room, a wire screen dividing them. The criminal explains the purpose of his crime: to make the fortunate unfortunate—the mission of an angel avenging capitalistic injustice. “Were you so unfortunate then?” Gondo asks, as much of himself as of the boy, who, suddenly hysterical, is taken away. An iron screen descends, leaving the “free” Gondo with the condemned’s muffled cries seemingly lodged in his own brain. If by paying the ransom Gondo was reintroduced to his humanity, now that process is complete. Across a wide gulf two humans have identified with one another, one by ignited memory, the other by envious fantasy. The symbolism is unmistakable: capitalism divides humanity—people from other people; people from themselves.
As is the case with Stray Dog, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood and Red Beard, Heaven and Hell—High and Low—benefits from superior black-and-white cinematography by Asakazu (Asaichi) Nakai.
* Delightful in-joke: almost a quarter-century later, Yamazaki plays a conniving, tax-evading businessman named Gondo in Juzo Itami’s A Taxing Woman (1987).
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