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the ire of the cynical executives who attempt to get him on their side in their attempt to oust the boss whose outdated ideas are running the business into the ground.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

Stakeout (張込み, Yoshitaro Nomura, 1958)

Most closely associated with the crime genre, Yoshitaro Nomura was, like his frequent source of inspiration Seicho Matsumoto, also an insightful chronicler of the lives of ordinary people in the complicated post-war society. Stakeout (張込み, Harikomi), once again inspired by a Matsumoto short story, is on the surface a police procedural but underneath it’s not so much about the fugitive criminal as a policeman on the run, vacillating in his choice of bride, torn between the woman he loves who is afraid to marry him because her family is poor, and the pressure to accept an arranged marriage with the perfectly nice daughter of a local bathhouse. The stakeout becomes, in his eyes, a kind of illustrated parable, going against the socially conventional grain to convince him that making the “sensible” choice may only lead to long years of regret, misery, and loneliness. 

The film opens, as so many of Nomura’s films do, with a journey as two dogged Tokyo cops board a long distance train from Yokohoma travelling all the way down to provincial Kyushu which might as well be a world away from the bustling metropolis. Posing as motor salesmen, they take a room at a local inn overlooking the home of a melancholy housewife, Sadako (Hideko Takamine), the former girlfriend of a man on the run, Ishii (Takahiro Tamura), suspected of being in possession of a gun used to kill the owner of a pawn shop during a robbery. The younger of the policemen, Yuki (Minoru Oki), declares himself faintly disappointed with Sadako, complaining that she looks older than her years and is in fact quite boring, “the epitome of ordinary”. 

His older colleague, Shimooka (Seiji Miyaguchi), reminds him that most people are boring and ordinary, but as he watches her Yuki comes to feel a kind of sympathy for Sadako, seeing her less as a suspect than a fellow human being. Later we hear from Sadako that her marriage has left her feeling tired every day, aimless, and with nothing to live for, that her decision to marry was like a kind of suicide. “A married woman is miserable” Yuki laments on observing Sadako’s life as she earnestly tries to do her best as a model housewife, married to a miserly middle-aged banker who padlocks the rice, berates her for not starting the bath fire earlier to save on coal, and gives only 100 yen daily in housekeeping money while she cares for his three children from a previous marriage. Trying to coax him back towards the proper path, Shimooka admits that marriage is no picnic, but many are willing to endure hardship at the side of the right man. 

The “right man” gets Yuki thinking. Sadako has obviously not ended up with the right man which is why he sees no sign of life in her as if she simply sleepwalks through her existence. He is obviously keen that he wouldn’t want to make another woman feel like that, or perhaps that he would not like to be left feeling as she does at the side of the wrong woman. We discover that his dilemma is particularly acute because he finds himself at a crossroads dithering between two women, faced with a similar choice to the one he increasingly realises Sadako regrets. Shimooka’s wife is acting as a go-between, pressuring him to agree to an arranged marriage with a very nice girl whose family own the local bathhouse. She makes it clear that she’s not trying to force him into a marriage he doesn’t want, but would like an answer even if the answer is no so they can all move forward, but for some reason he hasn’t turned it down. Yuki is in love with Yumiko (Hizuru Takachiho), but Yumiko has turned him down once before because her family is desperately poor, so much so that they’re about to be evicted and all six of them will have to move into a tiny one room flat. She feels embarrassed to explain to her prospective husband that she will need to continue working after they marry but send almost all of her money to her parents rather than committing to their new family. 

Meditating on his romantic dilemma, Yuki begins to sympathise even more with Sadako, resenting their fugitive for having placed her in such a difficult position and repeatedly cautioning the other officers to make sure that the press don’t get hold of Sadako’s name and potentially mess up her comfortable middle class life with scandal when she is entirely blameless. The fugitive, Ishii, is not a bad man but a sorry and desperate one. He went to Tokyo to find work, but became one of many young men lost in the complicated post-war economy, shuffling from one poorly paid casual job to another. Now suffering with what seems to be incurable tuberculosis, he finds himself dreaming of his first love, the gentle tones of famous folksong Furusato wafting over the pair as they lament lost love at a picturesque hot springs while Yuki continues to spy on them from behind a nearby tree. 

They both bitterly regret their youthful decision to part, she not to go and he not to stay. The failure to fight for love is what has brought them here, to lives of desperate and incurable misery filled only with regret and lonliness. Sadako views her present life as a kind of punishment, finally resolving to leave her husband and runaway with Ishii who has told her that he plans to go to Okinawa to drive bulldozers for the next three years, though we can perhaps guess he has a different destination in mind. “That’s the way the world is, things don’t go the way you want” Ishii laments, but the truth is choices have already been made and your course is as set as a railway track. Sadako plots escape, but all Yuki can do is send her back to her husband with sympathy and train fare, leaving us worried that perhaps she won’t go back after all. Buying tickets for his own return journey, Yuki pauses to send a telegram. He’s made his choice. It’s not the same as Sadako’s, a lesson has been learnt. He goes back to Tokyo with marriage on his mind, but does so with lightness in his step in walking away from the socially rigid past towards a freer future, staking all on love as an anchor in an increasingly confusing world.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Blood is Dry (血は渇いてる, Kiju Yoshida, 1960)

Blood is dry DVD coverIn the new post-war economy, everything is for sale including you! Kiju (Yoshishige) Yoshida’s second feature Blood is Dry (血は渇いてる, Chi wa Kawaiteru) takes its cues from Yasuzo Masumura’s earlier Technicolor corporate satire Giants and Toys, and Frank Capra’s 1941 comedy Meet John Doe in taking a faceless corporate drone and giving him a sense of self only through its own negation. The little guy is at the mercy not only of irresponsible capitalist fat cats, but of his own imagination and the machinations of mass media who are only too keen to sell him impossible dreams of individual happiness.

The action opens with a grandstanding rooftop speech from a former CEO to his distressed workforce informing them that because of “indifferent capitalism” this small business is going bust and everyone’s out of a job. Then, dramatically, our hero Kiguchi (Keiji Sada), steps out with a pistol and threatens to shoot himself, proclaiming that he no longer cares for his own life but doesn’t want anyone else to lose their job. Another worker, Kanai (Masao Oda), tackles Kiguchi and the gun goes off. Thankfully, he is only mildly wounded but Kiguchi’s case reaches the papers who make it into a human interest issue exemplifying the precarious economic conditions of the modern society. While he’s still somewhat current, an enterprising advertising executive hits on the idea of getting Kiguchi to act as the face of their campaign, bizarrely attempting to sell life insurance with the image of a man putting a gun to his head while proclaiming that “it’s high time everyone is happy”.

When we first meet him, Kiguchi is indeed a faceless, broken man at the end of his tether. His noble sacrifice is interpreted as an act of war on an unfair capitalist society, but as he later affirms in exasperation, Kiguchi had no political intent and never considered himself as acting with a greater purpose, he was simply terrified at the prospect of losing his job which is, in a sense, also his entire identity. Shy and mild-mannered, he stammers through speeches and curls himself into a hostile ball of awkwardness in front of the camera but ad exec Nonaka (Mari Yoshimura) is sure that only makes him a better sell for being “real” and relatable. Like the hero of Meet John Doe, however, Kiguchi starts to buy into his own hype. He fully embraces his role as the embodiment of the everyman, at once gaining and losing an identity as he basks in the unexpected faith of his adoring populace.

Kiguchi’s conversion wasn’t something Nonaka had in mind and it frightens her to realise she has lost control of her creation. Meanwhile, Nonaka’s ex, a paparazzo with a penchant for setting up celebrities in compromising situations in order to blackmail them, has it in for Kiguchi as the personification of his own dark profession. He resents the idea of using “suicide” as a marketing tool and the cynical attempt to sell the idea of happiness through the security of life insurance which, it has to be said, is a peculiarly ironic development.

Kiguchi’s liberal message of happiness and solidarity does not go down well with all – he’s eventually attacked in a taxicab by a right-wing nationalist posing as a reporter who accuses him of being a traitor to Japan, and it’s certainly not one which appeals to the forces which created him. Nevertheless, he does begin to capture something of the spirit of the man in the street who just wants to be “happy” only to have his message crushed when his image is tarnished by tabloid shenanigans and left wondering if the only way to reclaim his “artificial” identity is to once again destroy himself in sacrifice to his new ideal.

Yet Kiguchi’s motivation is both collectivist and individual as he claims and abandons his identity in insisting that he belongs to the people. His confidence is born only of their belief in him and without it he ceases to exist. Kiguchi’s entire identity has been an artificial creation with an uncertain expiry date and his attempts to buy it authenticity only damn him further while his actions are once again co-opted by outside forces for their own aims. The little guy has achieved his apotheosis into a corporate commodity leaving the everyman firmly at the mercy of his capitalist overlords, dreaming their dreams of consumerist paradise while shedding their own sense of self in service of an illusionary conception of “happiness”.


Original trailer (no subtitles)