High and Low (天国と地獄, Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

A self-made man is landed with an unthinkable dilemma when his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped in place of his own just at the moment he’s staked his entire fortune on a manoeuvre to outsmart cynical executives set on taking over his company in Kurosawa’s post-war crime film, High and Low (天国と地獄, Tengoku to Jigoku). The movie’s Japanese title, Heaven and Hell, might hint more strongly at the growing economic disparities in the era of the economic miracle but also at the dualities embodied in the hero’s choices. “Success isn’t worth losing your humanity” his wife tells him, but he still struggles with the validity of choosing his heart over his head knowing that to pay anyway even though it’s another man’s son means financial ruin, the final question being if he is really prepared to allow a child to die simply to maintain his own wealth and status. 

The problem is that Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) has attempted to mount a rebellion against the evils of consumerism, incurring the ire of the cynical executives who attempt to get him on their side in their attempt to oust the boss whose outdated ideas are running the business into the ground. Though Gondo appears sympathetic, hinting that he might be interested if there’s a good enough promotion in it, he later tells them where to go on seeing that their business plan is to start producing poor quality disposable footwear. Gondo started on the factory floor and he doesn’t want to put the company’s name on such shoddy produce nor does he think that their admittedly fair point that if the shoes are well made and last a long time no one will need to buy any is a good way to do business. He doesn’t think the boss is right either and wants to make shoes his own way which is why he’s remortgaged the sizeable mansion he owns on top of a hill overlooking the city and has pretty much run through his wife’s dowry to buy a majority stake in the company.

On top of a hill is a good place to live if you want a good vantage point to oversee the land below, but while you’re looking down others look up and not all of them kindly. Gondo is as he says a self-made man, but also out of touch with contemporary society and not so far from an ambitious courtier always after a little more. He says it isn’t about getting the top job but getting shoes made right, but it seems he too had been bitten by the consumerist bug and is otherwise unable to affirm his status without material proof. When he thinks it’s his own son that’s been kidnapped, he’d have given it all away but when it’s the driver’s boy it’s a different question. Shinichi (Masahiko Shimazu) isn’t his responsibility and as he points out there are plenty of other wealthy men, why is he the only one to pay? While his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) tearfully urges him to do the right thing, his assistant (Tatsuya Mihashi) tries stop him, insisting he should take the sizeable cheque they’ve had drawn up to Osaka and the stakeholder he’s buying the shares from. 

While he vacillates, the driver, Aoki (Yutaka Sada), is humiliated and forced into servitude. Gondo seems to have the old-fashioned idea that the kidnappers would simply let Shinichi go on realising they’ve got the wrong boy and his father can’t pay, but Aoki knows there’s nothing he can do to save his son but throw himself on Gondo’s mercy. He falls to the ground and prostrates himself, but later retracts all telling Gondo it doesn’t matter, that he hadn’t realised what he was asking of him, and insisting that Shinichi is a bright boy who will look for a chance to escape on his own. Once the boy is returned he treats him harshly, interrogating him about anything he might have forgotten and later driving him around looking for the hideout where he was kept in an attempt to do something and repay the debt he now feels he owes to Gondo by helping the police retrieve the money Gondo eventually agreed to pay for him. 

In agreeing to give up the money, Gondo is in a sense unburdened knowing he has made the right choice and realising that he would never live a comfortable life in that house if cost a child’s life to keep it. Part of his rationale for not wanting to pay had been that though he had been poor before and might be again, his wife had not been and does not truly understand what it is to live in poverty much as she says her life of luxury means nothing to her. She has never wanted for anything, after all. As for the kidnapper, Ginjiro (Tsutomu Yamazaki), we know little of his motives save for his intense resentment living quite literally in the shadow of Gondo’s mansion and feeling as if it were mocking him. Then again, though his life is hard Ginjiro already had a path to success in that he would soon have completed his medical studies implying at least that he or someone else was able to cover his tuition and costs of living, that he was able to continue in education, and really had no need to take such drastic action in rebellion against the antagonistic capitalism of the post-war society. “Do you think we have to hate each other?” Gondo asks him, but Ginjiro has no answer only his intense resentment for everything he represents.

The “hell” that Gondo inhabits is a backstreet wasteland peopled by the hopeless. Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), the earnest policeman, follows him through thronging clubs and on into “dope alley” where Ginjiro picked up his accomplices so desperate to escape their suffering that they’d agree to help him kidnap a child. Though it costs him his job, Gondo decision to do the right thing makes him a national hero, the working class millionaire who mows his own lawn and can still knock up a pair of shoes should the occasion call while women across the country decide to boycott the company in protest at his treatment. Ginjiro can only howl like a caged animal while facing a death sentence for the coldblooded murder of his accomplices. The light bouncing off his mirrored sunshades gives him an eerie supernatural quality, a demon arising from depths of hell to wreak havoc in heaven but finding only infinite tragedy in the contradictions of the consumerist post-war society.


High and Low screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 19th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Idiot (白痴, Akira Kurosawa, 1951)

“He was too good for this world” a matriarch finally concedes of the pure soul at the centre of Akira Kurosawa’s The Idiot (白痴, Hakuchi), though like most she had found his goodness unnerving. Adapted from the Dostoyevsky novel, Kurosawa’s poetic morality play is like much of his contemporary work a meditation on the post-war future but perhaps also an admission that this “faithless world” isn’t meant for pure souls and that goodness too can be destructive in its incompatibility with a world ruled by cruelty and selfishness. 

Relocated to a wintery Hokkaido, the film opens with former soldier Kameda (Masayuki Mori) travelling north to stay with a relative after a spell in a psychiatric hospital in Okinawa. Having been sentenced to death for war crimes in what he claims was a case of mistaken identity and then unexpectedly reprieved, Kameda suffered a nervous breakdown but also describes himself as having been reborn, as if everything that had happened to him up to that point had happened to someone else. Ever since then he’s been a pure soul, selfless and ethereal but also with, as someone later puts it, an eerie power to see into people’s hearts that leaves some feeling shamed or uncomfortable in the stinging light of his goodness. 

In the outdated language of the time, he is called an “idiot” because of his epilepsy which has he says caused him epileptic dementia. In the title cards that open the film, it is said that goodness is often conflated with idiocy as if to be good is only to be naive for sophistication necessarily favours calculation over feeling. He is an outcast firstly because of the stigma surrounding his condition and secondly because of the way his goodness reflects on others, leaving them feeling exposed or perhaps judged and found wanting. 

He finds his mirror in a young woman, Taeko (Setsuko Hara), who is loved by a man he met on the train, Akama (Toshiro Mifune), but is herself an outcast because she has been the mistress of a wealthy man, Tohata (Eijiro Yanagi), since she was only 14 years old. On seeing a photograph of her in a shop window near the station he remarks that she seems very unhappy, later explaining that in her eyes he saw only long years of lonely suffering that reminded him of the eyes of a young soldier executed by firing squad who looked back at him with eyes filled with reproach that he must be sacrificed for the folly of the war. But whereas Kameda’s awakening as a pure soul has opened him up to the world, Taeko’s internalised shame has made her cold and indifferent. Kameda’s recognition of her as another pure soul grants her the courage to escape one kind of suffering in abandoning the wealthy man who has ruined her life, but only provokes further destruction in her conviction that Kameda is the one man she can never love for she will only ruin him. 

Kameda, meanwhile, falls in love with the daughter of his relative, Ayako (Yoshiko Kuga), who is proud and largely unable to express her feelings honestly often saying the direct opposite of what she actually means. She too has her idea of goodness, breaking with her childhood sweetheart Kayama (Minoru Chiaki) when he is tempted by an offer from Tohata to enter into a sham marriage with Taeko for appearance’s sake in return for a large sum of money and guaranteed social advancement. Though Ayako originally rejects Kameda because of the shame and humiliation she would feel married to a man with a disability, she nevertheless fails in love with him but is unable to accept the equality of his love in his inability to abandon Taeko to whom he has come to represent a kind of salvation. 

Ayako later comes to believe that it was she who was truly the “idiot” in her petty jealousy lamenting that “if only we could all love without hatred” as Kameda had done though it was in the end his selfless love that sealed his fate, while for Akama it was perhaps the opposite in realising that he would never possess Taeko’s heart and that the only reason she returned to him was because she thought him to be a man of so little importance that ruining him was of no consequence and ruin him she did in the madness of his love. Guileless, Kameda is also a pauper cheated out of his inheritance by a relative and then again exploited by a duplicitous businessman, his poverty another proof of his goodness while others squabble over money. Having escaped an authoritarian father and come in to his inheritance, Akama wagers his fortune trying to buy Taeko from Tohata by gazumping Kayama who later redeems himself by letting the money burn but never really escapes the stain of his temptation. 

Kurosawa frames the tale as high gothic, filled with eerie winds and mist and fire in the midst of snow. The stove of Akama’s otherwise dark and gloomy mansion seems to flare with the intensity of confrontation as the passions of these four tortured souls rise and fall while each seeking a kind of salvation which necessarily cannot satisfy all. Originally intended to run in two parts over 265 minutes, the film was famously too big for producers at Shochiku for whom Kurosawa was working outside of his regular studio Toho. They cut 100 minutes to suit their exhibition needs, excising most of the prologue and inserting a number of clumsily placed intertitles absent from the rest of the film while undercutting the sense of mounting dread in the tragic backstories of each of these doomed romantics. But even in this compromised version, Kurosawa captures something of the gothic fatalism that surrounds Kameda, an innocent lamb in a world of wolves as Akama describes him, whose boundless, selfless love has no place in this faithless world. 


The Idiot screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 13th & 21st January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

No Regrets for Our Youth (わが青春に悔なし, Akira Kurosawa, 1946)

“Freedom is something you have to fight for” a young woman is ironically reminded by her progressively-minded father as she finds herself torn between the conservatism of her upbringing as an upper middle class daughter of an academic family and a bid for independence in the freedoms of the post-war society. In part a lament for a lost generation whose resistance towards rising militarism had been all but forgotten, No Regrets for Our Youth (わが青春に悔なし, Waga Seishun ni Kuinashi), is also the story of a post-war woman seeking new directions which in this case eventually send her back to the land.

Then again, there’s no denying that Yukie’s (Setsuko Hara) dilemma is framed as romantic, torn between a dynamic communist and a spineless conservative while otherwise in her youth fairly vacuous. As the film opens, she frolics with some of her father’s students at a local mountain that overlooks Kyoto University. Caught on a stepping stone she awaits help from either the charismatic Noge (Susumu Fujita) or the diffident Itokawa (Akitake Kono) before Noge boldly dashes forward and carries her to the bank. Seeing Itokawa looking sheepish and embarrassed, she tugs on his student cap as if she hasn’t quite yet made up her mind which path she will take. “If I married you, my life would be calm and peaceful,” Yukie later reveals to Itokawa, “but it would also be a bit boring”, whereas if she married Noge “my life would burn so brightly that I might be blinded.” 

Even so, her outlook as the professor’s daughter leans towards the conservative. During the picnic on the mountain, the students suddenly hear the sound of cadets training with firearms Yukie exclaiming that it makes her heart race before ominously discovering the body of a wounded solider in the overgrowth. She declares that she hates “leftists” and that her father is a “liberal” not a “red” but will any case eventually be vindicated. Though attracted to Noge’s passionate nature, she seems to find him dull company, “boring” in his constant conversation about the rise of fascism while visibly bristling when he all but calls her a vacuous socialite and says she needs a “slap in the face to grow up” which is in a sense what he’s just given her. Her life had been that of a privileged upperclass girl cosseted from the world, engaging with refined pursuits such as playing the piano and learning traditional flower arrangement. Her epiphany seems to come when she realises she’s been doing as she’s told, reminded that flower arrangement is a means of self-expression suddenly tearing the heads off chrysanthemums and crafting something truly avant-garde that is in its own way quietly shocking. Notably her flower arrangements while living with Noge are much more harmonious. 

Still she wavers, wondering if she should give in to the quiet life she’d have with a man like Itokawa, a man with no ideology who sides with the militarists and becomes a prosecutor because it is expedient to do so, or continue to wait for Noge who by this point has been in prison and ostensibly renounced his socialist beliefs to join the army. What she chooses independence, breaking with the conventional life her mother wanted for her to support herself with a job at a trading company in Tokyo. Running into Itokawa in the city, he strongly hints to her that Noge is, from his point of view, up to no good running a kind of think tank as an expert on China. 

When Yukie chooses Noge she implies it’s because she wants “something I can throw myself into body and soul”, hoping to join him in his new cause prepared as her father had warned her to make sacrifices in the struggle for freedom. In the one sense, it’s Yukie making up her own mind to abandon her privileged background to live her life with no regrets, but it’s also impossible to ignore that the cause she dedicates herself to is that of her husband. Committed to making Noge’s parents, both peasant farmers, understand that he was not an “ungrateful” son but a man who did his best to oppose the war and fight for peace and prosperity in Japan, she commits herself to the land and wins them over with the strength of her resolve. The hands that once played piano are now rough with work and it is in this she has found her purpose. Yet it’s difficult to say if the austerity of her new life represents ultimate freedom or only further constraint in the imperative of her continued suffering. Perhaps it doesn’t really matter, if as she says she has no regrets for her youth as she joins hands with the peasant farmers leaving her privileged upbringing behind her even as her mother remarks that with her father reinstated at the university it’s as if nothing had changed. There is then something quite poignant as she sits by the stream and sees the students file past her singing their song of protest that in the end went unheeded while she prepares to reject modernity in its entirety and return to the simplicity of the land.


No Regrets for Our Youth screens at the BFI Southbank, London on 2nd & 10th January 2023 as part of the Kurosawa season.

Apostasy (破戒, Keisuke Kinoshita, 1948)

Hakai still 1For all his good hearted humanism and intense belief in the simple power of human goodness, the films of Keisuke Kinoshita can also be surprisingly conservative, most particularly in their attachment to the old, pre-war Japan which they often see as unsullied by the corruption and ugliness of the militarist era. A new constitution film, Kinoshita’s adaptation of the Toson Shimazaki novel The Broken Commandment, The Apostasy (破戒, Hakai), opens with a series of bold titles proclaiming “Freedom and equality”, and “respect for human rights” before breaking into an attack on the persistent feudalism which has managed to survive into the new era along with prejudice and contempt. Zooming back to the missed opportunity of Meiji-era liberation, Kinoshita too remains somewhat ambivalent about the the decline of a social order in a Chekhovian lament for the rise of the petty middleman and the fall of noble aristocracy.

In Meiji 35 (1902), despite the advent of the Meiji Restoration and abolishment of the class system, prejudice against the “burakumin” – untouchable “outcasts” who lived in isolated settlements and (historically) made their living in occupations connected with death, was still very much in existence. This is all too apparent to Segawa (Ryo Ikebe). A bright young man, Segawa’s father sent him out of their village to make something of himself with the solemn promise that he must never reveal his burakumin origins to anyone. The world being as it is, however, Segawa is conflicted especially as he has fallen in love with his mentor’s daughter Oshiho (Yoko Katsuragi) and wonders if it would be fair to marry a non-burakumin woman without telling her truth and live with the threat of discovery forever over their heads.

The Broken Commandment would later be adapted again by Kon Ichikawa whose focus is, perhaps quite surprisingly, very different to that of Kinoshita who, uncharacteristically, chooses to prioritise class concerns over the right to live freely and honestly in a compassionate society. Ichikawa’s adaptation deliberately widens the implications of Segawa’s dilemma, making it plain that he is talking not just about burakumin rights but directly to all oppressed peoples and most particularly to those who feel obliged to keep their true natures a secret in an oppressive and conformist society. Strangely, Kinoshita chooses not to engage with this theme which might otherwise seem tailor made for his persistent concerns if perhaps a little close to home, preferring to focus not on Segawa’s gradual shift into accepting his own identity and hearing the call to activism but on the reactions of the changing world around him which seems to be imploding while besuited upstarts enact their petty revenge on the chastened nobility.

This is most clearly seen in the unfair treatment of Segawa’s mentor and landlord, Kazama (Ichiro Sugai) – a former samurai and until recently the local school teacher. Mere months away from his retirement, Kazama has been instructed to resign so that the school will not need to pay his pension while his position has been taken by a pushy local man with limited education whose sole claim to the job is being of the people. Kazama is understandably resentful but stoic. Segawa’s liberal colleague, Tsuchiya (Jukichi Uno), takes the school board to task for its unreasonableness and underhanded attempt to save money by forcing an old man out of his position with no thought for his 30 years of service. Though Tsuchiya might be broadly in agreement with the changes taking place in Meiji-era society, he too worries about the greedy upstarts usurping privilege rather than seeking to eradicate it.

Stepping back for second, Apostasy is a post-war film designed to echo the egalitarian philosophies of the new constitution drawn up under the American occupation. It is then somewhat subversive that our villains are the Westernised lower middle classes of Meiji-era society who seem to have embraced “modernity” by dressing in suits but refuse to abandon ridiculous ancient prejudices such as that towards burakumin, doubtless because those prejudices largely work out in their favour. It would be tempting to read these prejudices as foreign imports, but that against the burakumin is wholly Japanese and truth be told somewhat backward in contrast to (the kimono’d) Tsuchiya’s forward looking socialist beliefs which superficially at least seem more in keeping with the age.

Yet it is in some senses Segawa himself who struggles to emerge from the feudal yoke. His promise to his father is a sacred vow underlined by loss and sacrifice. He feels it is his duty to live as his father wished, as a “normal” Japanese citizen in success and comfort, but also begins to become acutely aware that to do so may be cowardly and selfish. If he chooses to keep his promise to his father and never reveal himself as a burakumin, he will be complicit with the systems which oppress him and thereby ensure those like him will always be oppressed. His awakening comes, in a sense, from a second father – Inoko (Osamu Takizawa), a burakumin who has come out of the closet and loudly fought for burakumin rights along with the general liberty of all oppressed people. Caught between two fathers and his growing love for Oshiho, Segawa remains lost while one of the suited proto-militarists threatens to out him leaving him floundering in the face of intense social stigma and the possibility that those he loves may turn against him.

Segawa has to free himself or risk becoming like Kazama – a man haunted by the feudal past, as Tsuchiya puts it. Kazama himself is painted in broadly sympathetic terms, forced to endure the melancholy fate of being eclipsed by a Lopakhin-esque member of the insurgent middle-classes, but his prejudice is later exposed despite his original support of Segawa when he notices one of the suits smirking at him and instantly feels humiliated, turning his impotent rage back on the outcast as if his presence further dishonours him as a samurai. Segawa’s aim as a teacher had been to teach his children the power of individual thought, which would seem to be the best weapon against prejudice but his message has been cut off at source thanks to the self-interested school board who have been all to quick to claim the benefits of modernity with none of the responsibility. Resolved to fight for a freer future, Segawa finally accepts his responsibility as a burakumin spokesman in the knowledge that his calling is to educate and that only through education can anything ever change. The lessons of Meiji may have gone unheeded, but the opportunity presents itself again to abandon the feudal past in favour of an egalitarian modernity built on fairness and compassion rather than obligation and oppression.


Titles/opening (no subtitles)