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the ire of the cynical executives who attempt to get him on their side in their attempt to oust the boss whose outdated ideas are running the business into the ground.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)

Flag in the Mist (霧の旗, Yoji Yamada, 1965)

flag in the mist poster 2In theory, we’re all equal under the law, but the business of justice is anything but egalitarian. Yoji Yamada is generally known for his tearjerking melodramas or genial comedies but Flag in the Mist (霧の旗, Kiri no Hata) is a rare step away from his most representative genres, drawing inspiration from America film noir and adding a touch of typically Japanese cynical humour. Based on a novel by Japanese mystery master Seicho Matsumoto, Flag in the Mist is a tale of hopeless, mutually destructive revenge which sees a murderer walk free while the honest but selfish pay dearly for daring to ignore the poor in need of help. A powerful message in the increasing economic prosperity of 1965, but one that leaves no clear path for the successful revenger.

Kiriko (Chieko Baisho), a twenty year old typist from Kyushu, has taken an arduous train journey into Tokyo to get a meeting with a top lawyer she hopes will defend her older brother and only living relative from a trumped up murder charge. The clerk attempts to dissuade her – Mr. Otsuka (Osamu Takizawa) charges a hefty sum for his services and, in any case, his docket is too full to be travelling back and forth to Kyushu never mind the additional travel and accommodation costs. Kiriko is disappointed but undeterred – she thinks she can manage the expenses, but asks for a discount on the fee. The clerk finds this amusing and does at least ask Otsuka who finally agrees to see Kiriko seeing as she’s come all this way. She makes an impression on him but ultimately he tells her he’s just too busy and she’s better off looking for a lawyer closer to home.

Kiriko leaves disappointed but refuses to give up, missing her original train to try again by telephone but Otsuka has already gone out “to see clients” and so she finally has to accept her mission to save her brother may have stalled. While Kiriko was using the public phone, she was overheard by a reporter, Abe (Yosuke Kondo), who wants to write something on the case but his Tokyo based bosses aren’t so keen on a local interest story from halfway across the country.

A year later, Kiriko’s brother Masao (Shigeru Tsuyuguchi) has been convicted and sentenced to death. After his second appeal fails, Masao dies of illness in prison before the sentence could be carried out. Kiriko writes a bitter letter to Otsuka blaming him for her brother’s death which forces Otsuka to reconsider his decision not to take the case. He comes to the conclusion that the case was unwinable and therefore his decision not to take it made no difference but then, he spots something that no one else seems to have noticed.

A tenacious and strong willed young woman – you’d have to be to jump on a long distance train from a tiny village all the way to the big city on your own in 1965, Kiriko is determined to save her brother but finds herself facing an uphill battle against a society deliberately structured to ignore her voice and those of everyone like her. Kiriko is an orphan and so her older bother is also a kind of father figure as well as the only living relative she has left. Masao had been a primary school teacher, which is to say a respected member of society, but found himself involved with a loanshark who was later murdered after he lost some cash collected from students to pay for a school trip and borrowed money he couldn’t pay back from a ruthless old woman. Masao has made a mistake he’s going to pay for dearly – disgraced and humiliated, it was easy work to frame him for a violent crime and force him into a confession through the usual police methods. Kiriko won’t stand for it, but she’s powerless to help him.

Otsuka is, in a sense, entitled to charge what he wants for his services. He’s clearly a talented lawyer, very much in demand, and so why “should” he trek all the way out to Kyushu for a case that doesn’t interest him when he has enough clients already. He does, at least, bother to listen to Kiriko’s pitch before letting her down gently, but just when it seems he might be about to change his mind he tells his clerk to cancel all his appointments and winds up on the golf course with his girlfriend. So much for being too busy to save an innocent man’s life.

Kiriko’s “whole life has been desecrated by one incident” as she cuttingly writes later in a letter which forms a crucial part of her plot of revenge against the man who refused to save her brother’s life (half talking about something else). Forced out of her hometown where she’s the murderer’s sister, she finds work as hostess going by the club name of Rie in a Tokyo bar which has a Kyushu theme. This brings her back into contact with the reporter, Abe, and that isn’t the last of the coincidences as Kiriko finds herself swept up by circumstances which allow her to turn an unfortunate series of events into a cunning plan to ruin Otsuka by neatly echoing the precise circumstances of her brother’s case. Now it’s Otsuka forced to plead with her night after night, begging on his knees that she agree to testify and turn over key evidence that proves his client is innocent all while Kiriko adamantly sticks to her story.

Yamada conjures a tense and gloomy film noir world, following Kiriko down foggy passageways as she tries to navigate the city from the shadows, chasing the spectre of the unjust but losing herself in the process. Masao dies because he was too poor to hire a good lawyer to save him from the police who were supposed to be protecting him, but decided it was easier to stitch up someone without influence than find the real killer. His sister destroys herself to get revenge not just on lawyers more interested in fame and success than in serving justice but on an entire society which believes her existence is insufficiently important to merit full consideration. Otsuka is not a bad man, he is not corrupt or incompetent, he is merely selfish in all the ways his society encourages him to be. Originally letting himself off the hook with the excuse that his decision made no difference, he’s genuinely horrified when he realises he’s noticed a crucial clue which could have exonerated Masao even if it’s an equally selfish guilt he feels more than a recognition that he’s failed his duty to justice by letting an innocent man die while a guilty one lives to kill again. No one wins in this case, everyone emerges ruined and broken by the increasing inequalities and selfish individualism of the post-war world. Justice is blind, so they say, but perhaps she needs to open her eyes.


Original trailer (no subtitles)