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the ire of the cynical executives who attempt to get him on their side in their attempt to oust the boss whose outdated ideas are running the business into the ground.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 Last War (世界大戦争, Shue Matsubayashi, 1961)

As The Last War (世界大戦争, Sekai Daisenso) points out, by 1961 16 years had passed since the end of World War Two during which Japan had begun to rebuild itself, heading into a period of unprecedented economic prosperity with the Olympics already on the horizon. But the early 1960s were also a time of increased international tension as the Cold War mounted and many in Japan feared being pulled into another conflict especially with the Korean War not quite so much in the distant past. Toho had become the home of special effects cinema and such films were often coloured with strong messages of peace and social responsibility as humanity banded together to combat an existential threat be it a giant monster or mad scientist. The Last War is no different in that regard, but sadder in showing us that the end of the world may come suddenly and without warning and that if we for a second become complacent it could already be too late to stop it. 

Patriarch Mokichi (Frankie Sakai) has made a decent life for himself after the war working as a driver. His wife, Oyoshi (Nobuko Otowa), is in poor health and he dreams of buying a house by the sea where she can live in comfort. Meanwhile, they have a grownup daughter, Saeko (Yuriko Hoshi), born before the war, and two much younger children, a girl, Haru, and boy, Ichiro. They are a very happy, very ordinary family who are beginning to think that their days of hardship are finally behind them and they have escaped the war’s shadow. The only note of potential conflict lies in the fact that Saeko wants to marry a family friend, Takano (Akira Takarada), a sailor, and is afraid of Mokichi’s reaction, especially as he keeps trying to set up matches for her. 

In fact, having lived through the war Oyoshi and Mokichi are certain that nothing like that is going to happen again, even if the younger generation is filled with anxiety. “Who could ever profit from the destruction of the Earth?” Mokichi not unreasonably asks, signalling his newly consumerist world view. Mind you, he adds, everyone knows the alternative to calamity is hard work, “you have to work hard for peace”. 

Mokichi has indeed been working hard, but has perhaps begun to neglect other areas of his life in his desire to become rich even if that desire is only to make his family more comfortable and give his children better opportunities than he had. Brought over to see a new TV set now on sale, he scoffs that he already has one, “Who needs a second TV?” he asks, but on hearing the news that tensions are rising because a military plane has gone down off the coast of Africa, his first thought is to get on the phone to his broker and junk his real estate stocks for shares in aeronautics. Mokichi is unconvinced by an old man selling potatoes on their street who apparently lost everything in Hiroshima and has since become a devoted Christian donating most of his profits to anti-nuclear charities, describing him as just “showing off”, firmly believing that nothing like that is ever going to happen again. “I cannot accept it” he says, “what would be the point of the aspirations of humble folk like us if we’re all destined to go poof into extinction?”.  

As the only nation to have directly experienced nuclear war, the intense fear of its recurrence is indeed understandable. If a nuclear war escalates, it will be the end of everything. All human endeavours over thousands of years will be mere dust. There will be no weddings, no births, no graduations, no grand discoveries, just nothing. When the bomb does indeed hit, the scenes of devastation must have proved extremely traumatic for many in the audience as buildings crumble ominously, the sky turns a fiery red, the streets run with lava, and we can see the outlines of charred bodies lying among the wreckage. The tip of the Diet building sits neatly atop the rubble as if in rebuke of the political failures which, despite the best efforts of the Japanese politicians who make an effort to govern responsibly and are honest with the electorate while advocating strongly for peace through diplomatic channels, have led to the literal end of the world. “You have to work hard for peace” the closing title card reminds us. “We can stop this before it happens, but we have to work together”. “I won’t let you destroy our happiness” Mokichi had screamed at the void, but in the end he was powerless. All it takes is a minor slip, and the world as we know it will cease to be.


The Human Vapor (ガス人間第一号, Ishiro Honda, 1960)

The Human Vapour poster“The world is full of hysteria towards things they don’t understand” admits the strangely chatty “villain” at the centre of Ishiro Honda’s The Human Vapor (ガス人間第一号, Gas Ningen dai Ichi-go). Third in a loose trilogy of “mutant” films put out by Toho beginning with The H-Man and followed by The Secret of the Telegian, The Human Vapor is at once the most futuristic and the most traditional in that it’s no longer wartime guilt or nuclear anxiety which has corrupted our increasingly amoral hero but unwise ambition in which desperation to win the space race has produced a new and dangerous threat we may not be able to contain.

Honda opens with an exciting bank heist which on later consideration might not make much sense, filled as it is with shots of a faceless man pointing a gun at terrified staff while the vault doors open seemingly on their own. Earnest policeman Okamoto (Tatsuya Mihashi) is on the case, chasing a suspect car down a narrow country road only for it to crash and be discovered empty with no trace of the driver to be found. Okamoto’s feisty reporter girlfriend Kyoko (Keiko Sata) is dismayed to find out he has no leads, but later picks up on his mention of a buyo dancer, Fujichiyo (Kaoru Yachigusa), who lives near the scene and might have something to do with the case. 

Chasing Fujichiyo takes Okamoto to a library, where he becomes further convinced she is in contact with the mysterious bank robber. A strange and isolated woman, Fujichiyo is apparently from a noble, wealthy family but lives alone in a small cottage with only a single male servant where she devotes herself entirely to perfecting the art of traditional Japanese dance. We discover that Fujichiyo has been in poor health, which is why she hasn’t given a public performance in some time. Okamoto posits that the bank robber is bankrolling her comeback, though he never seems to have much of an explanation why she would need him when she has access to her own resources.

He is however correct, though it seems Fujichiyo was not aware that the money was stolen otherwise she might have been more careful in using it. In a contrast with genre norms, honest cop Okamoto never falls for Fujichiyo but does become oddly invested in her sad love story while sparking with his cheerful reporter girlfriend who ends up doing much the same. In fact, Kyoko is the only one doing much investigating but largely finds herself having to do it in spite of the (generally useless) men around her, including an unpleasant younger colleague who mocks all her ideas but does nothing much of anything on his own.

In any case, smirking villain Mizuno (Yoshio Tsuchiya) later makes himself known to the police in a selfless gesture of love in order to clear Fujichiyo’s name and get her released from police custody. He does this by taking the police to a bank and demonstrating how he was able to get in the vault without a key which involves his curious ability to turn himself into a gas. When Fujichiyo is not released, he takes matters into his own hands and frees all the prisoners in the cells, but Fujichiyo refuses to leave, insisting that she has no intention of running away and prefers to stay until the police affirm her innocence by releasing her.

Mizuno’s intention to bypass the law is one of the many signifiers of his increasing danger, that now believes himself “above” the rest of humanity and therefore no longer subject to their laws. He later tells the police exactly that, sitting them down for a mini audience to explain himself during which he recounts his history as an SDF pilot discharged on a diagnosis of lung cancer after which he took the boring job in the library and fell in love with Fujichiyo. A shady doctor, Sano (Fuyuki Murakami), later approached him claiming to be working for Japan’s space programme and suggested that his fighter pilot background made him a perfect fit for becoming an astronaut. Mizuno agreed to participate in his research to “change the existence of the human body” in preparation for life in space, but when Sano’s weird experiments turned him into a “gas man”, the doctor committed suicide in horror leaving Mizuno just another lonely victim of a mad scientist.

Like many other “mutant” heroes, the change in Mizuno’s body has also changed his soul though his love for Fujichiyo remains unchanged. It seems he’s only committing these crimes to fund her ambition of performing traditional buyo dance on the contemporary stage, while she though obviously devoted to her art finds it difficult to accept the man that he’s become. He promises to give her the world, sacrificing anyone that gets in his way. She remains conflicted, not wanting to accept his offer if it involves that kind of cost, and defending him to her colleagues only with the rationale that he is “different from what they are accustomed to”. While some advise caution, that perhaps Mizuno is not as dangerous as they think despite already having killed and should be given the chance to reform, others take a harder line eventually opting to use a different kind of gas to counter him.

Kyoko pleads with Fujichiyo as one woman in love to another, trying to protect Okamoto while advising her to pull Mizuno back from the brink by cancelling her performance, but precisely because of the understanding that exists between them she cannot. Sadly, as many point out, no one is really interested in buyo dance – the only audience members in attendance are there for the drama and the possibility of seeing the gas man in action. “You and I have finally won” Mizuno tells Fujichiyo on completion of her dance, as if this performance was all that ever mattered to either of them. But their victory leaves them with nowhere else to go, and the world unready to accept the latent threat a gas man represents. Fujichiyo makes her choice, one perhaps informed by her art and her love, while the authorities can only wait outside for the vapours to disperse.


Original trailer (No subtitles)

Battle in Outer Space (宇宙大戦争, Ishiro Honda, 1959)

battle in outer spaceIshiro Honda returns to outer space after The Mysterians with another dose of alien paranoia in the SFX heavy Battle in Outer Space (宇宙大戦争, Uchu Daisenso). Where many other films of the period had a much more ambivalent attitude to scientific endeavour, Battle in Outer Space paints the science guys as the thin white line that stands between us and annihilation by invading forces wielding superior technology. Far from the force which destroys us, science is our salvation and the skill we must improve in order to defend ourselves from hitherto unknown threats.

In 1965 Japan is a hit in space. Having launched their first space station, things are going well but after it is destroyed by flying saucers there is cause for concern. The problem intensifies as strange events occur across the Earth with bridges suddenly collapsing, boats being lifted from the sea and the waters of Venice conspiring to drown the town. World leaders gather in Tokyo to come up with a plan but one of the scientists’ key assets, Iranian professor Dr. Ahmed, is possessed by the Natalians via their high-tech remote control radio waves and procedeeds to do their dirty work for them. The Natalians will settle for nothing less than enslavement of the entire planet and have even set up a base on the moon to make it happen! Time to put those shiny new spaceships to good use!

Scientists may be the heroes of this particular story but the scientific basis for their actions is just as silly as your average B-movie. According to our top professor, the Natalians’ anti-gravity shenanigans can be put a stop to by means of a freeze ray – gravity is, of course, caused by the movement of atoms which is impeded by cold hence the freeze ray. A likely story, but it’s the best they’ve got. The other major problem is that the Natalians are able to possess various people and force them to do their bidding, apparently through “radio waves”. Less about the enemy within, the possibility of becoming a Natalian sleeper agent is more plot device than serious philosophical discussion.

Battle in Outer Space is, in this sense at least, one of the most straightforward of Toho’s B-movie leaning SFX extravaganzas. There is little hidden message here bar the importance of international collaboration as the whole world comes together to fight the alien threat – Middle Eastern and Indian scientists are at the forefront of research and Japan leads the charge flanked by Americans one side and Russians on the other.

Our intrepid band of scientists are the vanguard sent to see off the Natalian threat by jetting off into space and fighting them in their own territory. Honda and Tsuburaya outdo themselves with the special effects which are pretty astounding for 1959 making use of large scale models and matt painting. The scientists travel to the moon to look for the Natalians’ base only to encounter them in space and engage in exciting dogfight. Eventually landing they meet the Natalians face to face and discover they are very tiny and sort of cute but also hellbent on enslaving the Earth. Engaging them in a firefight using heat rays and laser guns, the scientists manage to escape but the Natalian threat follows them all the way back to Tokyo. In true Toho fashion, buildings are destroyed and people knocked flying as the Natalians take the city but our brainy scientists have thought of that and so the aliens have a whole barrage of heat ray guns to welcome them to Earth.

Battle in Outer Space might not have an awful lot going on in the background, but it makes up for it with sheer spectacle both in its effects and in production design. The Natalians are a scary bunch, until you actually meet them, but this time science is on our side as the good guys manage to figure out a way to save the Earth rather than destroy it through fear and angst. In the end it is determination and togetherness which finally lets the Natalians know humanity is not a good prospect for colonisation, only by coming together and making the best of their collective strengths is humanity able to triumph over a superior force – sadly a still timely lesson.


Original trailer (no subtitles)