March 23rd marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who died in 1998 at the age of 88. The birthday celebrations have been suitably impressive: almost every feature film he ever made screened on Turner Classic Movies in March, and Pacific Film Archive has matched TCM’s fervor with an Akira Kurosawa Centennial celebration that began in June and runs through the end of August.
Amongst the hitherto obscure delights I’ve discovered in the course of this months-long shindig have been such previously hard to see films as I Live in Fear, a 1955 drama featuring Toshiro Mifune as a man trying to overcome his perfectly understandable fear of nuclear weapons, and 1944’s The Most Beautiful, a chillingly effective propaganda piece about the brave women who assemble bombs on behalf of the Imperial Japanese armed forces. All the classics, of course, have also been present and correct, including Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, and The Hidden Fortress, the film that provided George Lucas with partial inspiration for Star Wars.
My personal favorite Kurosawa, however, is neither one of the director’s medieval epics nor one of his gritty, neo-realist post-war character studies: it’s a suspenseful police procedural, High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku). Set in a rebuilt, aggressively modern Japan, this taut 1963 tale of gangsters, wealthy businessmen, and ransom notes marked an uncharacteristic diversion into the crime genre by the great director.
High and Low stars Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune as Kingo Gondo, a shoe company executive of humble parentage who receives a ransom demand for the return of his ten-year old son Jun (Toshio Egi). Gondo is more than willing to pay up, but after agreeing to terms and emptying his bank account, he finds out that the kidnappers have made a mistake: instead of snatching Jun, they’ve actually seized the son of Gondo’s chauffeur. Is the child of a working-class stiff worth a 30,000,000 yen payout? That’s the moral quandary at the heart of High and Low, which climaxes with an impressive 40-minute cat and mouse set piece in which the police try to nab the ‘napper before he corrals the cash.
In addition to Mifune’s lead performance—a master-class in wrenching, morally compromised discomfort— High and Low features a pair of fine supporting turns courtesy Tatsuya Nakadai as Detective Tokura, the policeman in charge of the investigation, and Tsutomu Yamazaki as main bad guy Takeuchi. Masaru Sato’s grim score underlines the proceedings in appropriately oppressive fashion, whilst Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito’s black and white cinematography is luminous and beautiful in widescreen Tohoscope. There’s even an early glimpse of Japan’s legendary bullet trains (coming to a state near you by 2020 barring further economic catastrophe), so train-spotters and cineastes are equally well-served.
High and Low screens at PFA this Saturday, August 7, at 5:30 PM.