Akira Kurosawa's 'High and Low' (1963): A Kabuki Dance of Death

By Vivaan Shah

Toshiro Mifune in High and Low, Telephone Scene, Poster, Akira Kurosawa film

I first remember getting a glimpse of a queer black and white image from ‘High and Low’ on TCM, while channel surfing through an Onida CRT in the early 2000s. This was after Cartoon Network had made the shift to Hindi, and had become an all night station, relegating the erstwhile TNT that would initially follow its closing hours to the margins of even obsolescence. A tall over corpulent black man was twisting to surf rock in a dingy Tokyo nightclub trying to arouse the attentions of a quaint looking Japanese babe who slinkingly evaded his every advance like an alley cat, with a shoulder shift, her body language timed mechanically yet methodically to the music. 

There was something determinedly early '60s about the image. All it took was one appearance of a pair of neon soaked Wayfarers strapped around a lanky Japanese drifter, to make you realize it was 1963. The revelation that came later on that it was an Akira Kurosawa movie, in the commercial break when they would grace you with a customary run down on the info, was matched only with the uncanny inappropriateness of this picture, that stood out like a sore thumb as it is on the tube, which at the time was stocked mostly with sporting channels, Star Movies, Star World, AXN, and the other 24 or 25, sometimes up to 30 channels that would loiter around on old run down box sets with the empty channel slots brooding silently at the end in fuzzy contemplation of the dawn of the various spiritual leaders and the regional channels that would conquer their weather beaten grounds.

The movies that one spots while channel surfing tend to stay with one longer. It is a simple principle of attraction, what catches one’s eye. For me it’s been mostly obscure '80s, '90s fare that one tends to gravitate towards primarily for anthropological reasons. I equated the biker jackets and Hells Angels regalia from Peter Bogdanovich’s ‘Mask’ with Tim Hunter’s ‘River’s Edge’ for its small town denim aesthetic. Both movies spoke to disenchanted youth, (the latter being a kind of pre-Columbine testimony) and both had a jaded hipster swagger. Spike Lee’s 'Jungle Fever' and Michael Corrente’s 'Federal Hill', both early '90s neighborhood stories with young agitated blue collar Italian American hoods, had a similarly eye-catching fashion sense. The grazed crew cuts, and neo-ducktails, the vivid nylon track pants, and white vests with silver chains dangling over. These images were fascinating for sub-cultural reasons, because one grasps them entirely at face value, and hence engages or disengages involuntarily. It’s similar to the kind of people one finds interesting while walking the street. Needless to say I would have probably never heard of these movies had I not encountered them while flipping channels.
The police trying to trace the kidnapper, High and Low, Tatsuya Nakadai as Chief Detective Tokura
The police trying to trace the kidnapper
What was uncanny about the image of a black man dancing to rock n roll in a Kurosawa film (who was primarily known for his more traditionally rural epics) was that this urban shift was the visual equivalent of poetic gibberish. A ragged melody of nonsense verse amid a pretty stiff and hardboiled film, that was enough of a non-sequitur to make even Lucky from Waiting for Godot sit down and take notice. From the nightclub we cut to a racing police car with a siren blaring on top and one of those rear projection shots trailing behind, the occupants of the vehicle, presumably officers broadcasting reports straighfaced into a police radio, to remind us that this is a genre piece. It has been described as one of the finest of police procedurals, and it is painstaking in detail as it develops its Dostoevskian dilemma. Toshiro Mifune plays Gondo, a shoe magnate in corporate Tokyo (which was kind of prefigured by his turn as Kurosawa’s wounded Hamlet in 1959’s ‘The Bad Sleep Well’) who’s son has been kidnapped. But the catch here being that the kidnapper has mistakenly abducted his chauffeur's son instead of his own offspring. The dilemma here presented has enormous sociological implications. And if the moral crisis wasn’t enough Kurosawa has him have to give up his entire hard earned fortune for the return of the child. There’s a particularly disturbing scene as this conflict erupts. The driver starts literally grovelling at his feet, telling him that his son and even his son’s son would spend their entire lives in service of him in gratitude for his benevolence. Mifune’s face is a landscape of moral crisis. It’s like what Nicholas Ray said about Bogart’s face. ‘He was the very image of our condition. His face was a living reproach.’ Mifune’s Gondo is older and more worn out, physically and mentally from his earlier turns for Kurosawa. Gone is Hamlet’s unease, and the proletarian hero-ship of his Samurai icons. He is now a shrewd, calculating businessman, desperately clutching to his savings like a disgruntled tigress irritatedly pawing at her impoverished cubs. There’s a particularly moving bit towards the beginning where he expounds rather eloquently on his love for shoes, and what they mean to him to a drawing room full of discontented stockholders. He’s put together every stitch and sole, with his own two hands. The entire first act is like a set bound play. It all takes place in his living room and charts his recorded phone correspondence with the kidnapper. Apparently the house is somehow mysteriously in view of the kidnapper as he speaks. He looms large over the proceedings like a figure of mystic significance, and his mocking wry tone suggests a friendly contempt masking a particularly constrained derangement. The house in his view, hovers intimidatingly over the lesser quarters surrounding it, which he invariably belongs to as we are later to find out. When he’s finally introduced to us in the reflection of a swamp puddle, after collecting his ransom we follow him down the sidestreets into the underbelly of Tokyo. Meanwhile the police have set up an elaborate operation detailing a vast assortment of policeman in plainclothes, that jive inconspicuously with the scenery we then journey into. The second half is like a different movie. The radical shift in tone and dislocation of the central narrative, slowly takes us into a methodical build up of exposition that never feels like such because it is so firmly embedded in the nuts and bolts of the functionality of everyday life in an investigation. The procedurality i.e the boring bits in real life, start purring like a slow burn crystallization of the narrative motor, until when he reach the aforementioned nightclub there’s so much tension that there’s no place to turn to. To quote Jim Thompson in 1955’s The Killing, ‘you feel like the walls are closing in’. The cops keep tailing the kidnapper hobbling a dance step here and there to blend into the scenery, but yet firmly keeping an eye planted on the drifter the whole time. We follow him first into a nearly empty retreat where sedated people are lying around, some questionably dead, due to a fatal dosage, then into a smack den down the backalleys and gulleys and intersections that branch off into narrower bylanes and sidestreets.
Mifune’s Gondo, High and Low, Train scene, on his way to pay the ransom to the kidnapper
Toshiro Mifune's Gondo on his way to pay the ransom
The smack den is almost depicted like a mental institution, that could very well have mutated out of one of Ken Kesey’s or William Borrough’s bum trips. A forlorn Cuckoo’s nest perched precariously atop a mound of crowshit, its derelict inmates strewn among the wayside like fallen players on a scattered chessboard. This is probably one of the first movies where the drugs are an object of horror. A haggard lady rattles to her death in a corridor as the background score reverberates in female shrieks dressed in drag, that would have given even Ennio Morricone the shivers. She clasps onto a wooden archway her body language distorting with the music into a kind of Kabuki flop dance. We are up close on the torment, but we see her perishing from afar in a quick drop shot that cuts into place with the broken swing of a door. The film contains a masterful deployment of ‘O Sole Mio’ (later covered by Elvis as ‘It’s now or never’) on an old radio, as our villain is surrounded by his doom and finally captured by the police. His face is revealed in the floral shadows and wavy motions of sinuous leaves quivering in a greenhouse. The once smug expression in his wayfarers devolving into a delirious depiction of his defeat. The torment in his eyes seems to cut through the darkglasses and communicates the cracked despair residing inherently in stylization. It makes one grasp the possibility that not only was Kurosawa a precursor to Leone, but also to the hard-bitten school of darkglass filmmaking later perfected by such stylistic specialists as Wong Kar Wai, Tarantino, and even John Woo.
Kurosawa's tragic villain wearing darkglasses as a style statement
Kurosawa's tragic villain wearing darkglasses oozing with style
His incarceration and confrontation with Gondo to explain his actions, is the film’s tragic denouement. In Japanese this film was called ‘Tengoku to Jigoku’, which means ‘Between Heaven and Hell’. I am supposing the English title ‘High and Low’ has some narcotic connotations as well metaphoric ones. His final conversation with Gondo is one of the most harrowing confrontations ever filmed. It delves into agonizingly spiritual territory, the wounded mud of class, the motives being primal almost unexplainable, bordering on the inexplicable, like one of the unsolved mysteries of the universe. ‘Maybe it’s because my house was always cold in the winter and hot in the summer,’ he explains, trembling with shackled dignity. ‘I’m not afraid of hell or damnation.’ He frowns, jittering with contempt. ‘My life has been a hell for as long as I can remember’. But Gondo’s house in it’s high hilled contentment was always a figure of oppression for him. It reminds one of Robert Blake’s harrowing apology at the end of ‘In Cold Blood’. He might as well be addressing God and not just Gondo, or a justice system. His body language in this scene is difficult to accurately articulate. His violent trembling and uncontrollable shaking seems to entangle his outward behaviour with a subterranean volcano brewing deep within that prevents him from any kind of physical stability whatsoever. When he finally goes out of control the glass partition that separates them slams shut on him, consigning him to the infinite isolation of the perdition that awaits him. We barely see Mifune’s reaction to any of this, but we can just as well imagine it. His scowling wrinkles evoke an understanding that transcends compassion or even retribution. It’s a deeply disturbing conclusion and one that not only makes us see the villain’s point of view in the morally constrained early '60s, but also gives us an insight into his tortured psyche and the cobwebs of his soul.
Toshiro Mifune as shoe factory magnate in Akira Kurosawa's High and Low
A Still from Akira Kurosawa's High and Low
This is the film that introduced me to Kurosawa and made me realize some of the Gothic potential prevalent in his work. At the time I was perhaps too young to fully appreciate the 7 disc set L.D of ‘Seven Samurai’ I had been introduced to earlier, or the bloody hallucinations of Lady Macbeth in an early VHS of ‘Throne of Blood’. But High and Low spoke a visual language that I was deeply familiar with--the urban crime film. And the fact that Kurosawa made it hints almost at an elderly hipster residing within him that willfully decided to prowl around the haunts of younger people with his watchful gaze and his eagle eye perception of Soddom and Gomorrah. There’s nothing moralistic about Kurosawa, even though he belonged to the pre-hippie generation like Kubrick and Peckinpah. But the formal distance adds a potency to his images of debauchery that are a far cry from the late 60s post Easy Rider transformation of drugs into a cavalier activity--an obvious form of recreation which was the only escape from the horrors of the world. Kurosawa implies that if heaven exists on earth, so does hell; if humanity is capable of kindness and goodness and compassion, so is it capable of unspeakable acts of terror that defy any easy Freudian clarifications. It’s a kidnapping story, a morality play, a melodrama, a horror film and a Kabuki curiosity all wrapped into a grainy black and white garb that shreds apart at the seems with vivid, vibrant scope imagery, and even though he charted similar urban terrain in his fierce ‘Stray Dog’ from 1946, and would go on to show us a day in the life of a slum in his later ‘Dodes’ka-den’, this is his primal cry from the bowels of a crumbling post-war Japan. It would make a great double feature with Shohei Imamura’s ‘Vengeance is Mine’ (another study of criminal pathology), or perhaps even Imamura’s ‘Black Rain’ (which is about peasants living on the outskirts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki following the bombings). Like Prince Hamlet finally crumbling into a jagged embrace with his crippled Ophelia in a bomb shelter in ‘The Bad Sleep Well’, Kurosawa plumbs the humanity implicit in his scenario with a strict severity, that never borders on sentimentalism. He traverses the wastelands with the poetry of squalorto arrive at an even higher plane--the muffled quandry of a delayed epiphany that never quite makes sense to the mind, but strikes a strange chord with the soul. It makes us realize that both the poor and the rich are consigned to a moral purgatory. The faces and voices of the various characters take on a resolute stillness, and a creased-world weariness, as if they are all aware of some deep secret that might expose the hypocrisy inherent in a human predicament that has existed since the dawn of mankind, but one that has not grown any less troublesome or unsettling with the passage of time. I agree with Murtaza that ‘Dersu Uzala’ is the crystallization of all of Kurosawa’s pastoral poems, but ‘High and Low’ is probably his howl from the gutters through the grammaphone of genre, of officialdom, and ordinary people doing ordinary jobs to protect the extraordinary from the transgressions of what is considered ordinary or even normal. If as Gore Vidal put it ‘normality conjures images of vigorous minutemen’ in pinstriped suits rushing to the commands of their superiors, then the realm of the ordinary would probably lie in the unmined salt of the earth, deeply buried in a tangle of red tape coloured with the blood of many confused men and women seeking an answer to the inherent pain of existence. It’s an existential piece, but then again what isn’t?

P.S. High and Low is also featured in our all time best 100 movies.

About Author - 

Vivaan Shah is an actor, director, writer, musician, singer, and painter. He has tried his hands at various art forms though acting is the one through which he earns his bread and butter. He studied in The Doon School, St.Stephen's College and Jai Hind College. He has been active in the theatre scene since he was a child. Theatre is unquestionably the most important medium in his life. Currently he is trying to make it as a fiction writer of genre and hardboiled novels.

High and Low - Theatrical Trailer (YouTube)

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