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High and Low: Kurosawa's most politically conservative film?

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    Ugetsu

    High and Low, like many Kurosawa films, is identified a having a ‘social conscience’ and many writers have noted that as his career went on, Kurosawa went from being relatively radical and idealistic to having a generalised contempt for the power structures of Japanese society, whether portrayed directly in his contemporary films, or allegorically in his historic films. But one thing that does seem to stand out in this film is that despite the protagonist being a ‘civilian’, the real heroes of the film are the police. Without exception (and there are many police characters) they prove to be dogged, smart, utterly dedicated and honest. Much of this of course comes from the police procedural genre, although the film does lack the usual genre character of the sleazy political higher-up who always gets in the way of the dogged detectives.

    Another striking feature I think is that the non-police characters, especially in the lower levels of society are treated with a colder eye than is usual in a Kurosawa film. The bad guy is given no redeeming features whatever – he is not just vicious and cold blooded, he is also cowardly and mired in self pity. The low-lifes in the film, are (in contrast to his earlier contemporary films) either given no personalities (e.g. the three junkies who are murdered) or are shot in a manner suggesting disgust (the hospital incinerator manager). Only Gondo and his family are treated kindly by the directors gaze. Of course, as usual AK portrays the business executives as mostly appalling individuals.

    To an extent, I think these portrayals come directly from genre conventions. But Kurosawa seemed to shy away from any negative portrayal of the police, even one that would be within conventions. The most striking example is that there is apparently no consequences to the terrible decision to trap the kidnapper in the act of murder, which leads to the death of a young woman. It is certainly implied that it was worth it, in order to ensure the killer ended up on death row.

    If one is to extrapolate Kurosawa’s political feelings from the film, the conclusion seems to be that the hope for Japan is modern, ethically minded and individualistic businessmen with integrity and those institutions of the State which have not been contaminated by earlier militarism or the corruption of the bureaucracy. This seems to leave only the police (and everything I’ve read about the modern Japanese police would not fill be with confidence) as the formal institution people can look to for security, along with the integrity of a few outstanding individuals who can act as moral beacons for the rest of us. Even the judiciary seems to be indirectly considered worthless, as the police did not trust the courts to give the kidnapper his rightful punishment.

    While in the context of the film, I think this works very well – I would consider this to be one of the very greatest films ever made in the genre, I do find it curious that Kurosawa’s world view at the time seems so very limited and even simplistic, and completely at odds with the complexity and humanity of his films before and after.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu, I don’t think that this is a political or social film at all, and I would argue that it shouldn’t really be judged in those terms.

    My take on Gondo is also perhaps a little less positive than yours. In my view, he is a complex, but ultimately not very likeable character. He has definite positive qualities as someone who feels a responsibility to do good work and not cheat customers out of their money, even if it means lower profits (of course, we never really know if that’s really his view or just a way of refusing the takeover offer). But he is also quite self centred, deciding to pay for his driver’s son only after it has been pointed out to him that it would be career suicide to do otherwise. Even more disturbingly, his treatment of his wife feels quite patronising even for the time and society that he operates in. And I’m not sure if his all-in approach in his business dealings puts him into a favourable light, either.

    The police, meanwhile, can certainly connect the dots but I wouldn’t call them the real heroes. In fact, I see them as the substitute for the audience, and something like the Greek chorus. Especially so Nakadai’s character, whose reactions to what is going on around him constantly emphasise our feelings as the audience. If there was an Oscar for best eye performance, Nakadai would have gotten it that year.

    Like the police, we too as the audience curse when we hear the information early on that the kidnapper can only get a maximum of 5 years in prison. We demand more. Later on, when provided with the option of either catching him now for a maximum of 15 years or tricking him and getting him on death row, probably the majority of us agree with the police — the bastard must be hanged for what he did. But as you point out, the decision is the wrong one, for it costs another life. Perhaps this is intended as an opportunity of self examination for us as the audience, especially when Gondo in the last scene asks why he should hate the kidnapper. If he shouldn’t, why should we?

    So, while the film does include some of Kurosawa’s recurring topics of social criticism, especially in his portrayal of the businessmen, I don’t think that the film should be taken as commentary on Japan’s social constructs. It is more focused on what is within a man. I think that High and Low is thematically closer to something like Red Beard than it is to, say, The Bad Sleep Well.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili, I think you are right that the film is in some respects thematically closer to Red Beard than his earlier films. Red Beard has always struck me as curiously one dimensional and even banal in its philosophy and politics – it is much more interesting as an exploration of the characters. I think High and Low possibly marks a point where Kurosawa seemed to have tired of trying to grapple with contemporary politics. One way of looking at it perhaps is that with Yojimbo, Sanjuro and The Bad Sleep Well, he was content to just express disgust at Japanese politics and society. Through the sixties he seemed to have decided that any progress could only be through the individual, not through structures or hierarchies.

    My take on Gondo is also perhaps a little less positive than yours. In my view, he is a complex, but ultimately not very likeable character. He has definite positive qualities as someone who feels a responsibility to do good work and not cheat customers out of their money, even if it means lower profits (of course, we never really know if that’s really his view or just a way of refusing the takeover offer). But he is also quite self centred, deciding to pay for his driver’s son only after it has been pointed out to him that it would be career suicide to do otherwise. Even more disturbingly, his treatment of his wife feels quite patronising even for the time and society that he operates in. And I’m not sure if his all-in approach in his business dealings puts him into a favourable light, either.

    I find this interesting – I didn’t really think of him this way – in my viewing I followed the path of the police, in thinking him a bit arrogant at first, but then unreservedly admiring him. I’m not sure I’d agree though that he only decided to pay for the ransom after it was described as career suicide – I think his wife always knew he would pay, he just had to struggle with his conscience before doing it. Perhaps, to paraphrase Churchills comment about Americans that ‘they will always do the right thing, once they have tried every other option’, his wife knew that he would always do the right thing in the end, he would just have to go through an internal struggle first. It seemed to me that the scene was portraying a man who struggles between his pragmatic side and his sense of justice – the contrast being with his wife, who immediately wanted to do the ‘right’ thing, without necessarily having thought through the practical implications of her actions.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: Perhaps, to paraphrase Churchills comment about Americans that ‘they will always do the right thing, once they have tried every other option’, his wife knew that he would always do the right thing in the end, he would just have to go through an internal struggle first.

    You may well be right. I have thought about this quite a lot in the past couple of weeks since you posted the above. I now wonder if my negative response to the character is more due to the way Mifune plays him than the character’s actions.

    Gondo is a fairly nuanced character, both in how he is written and performed. While there are both positives and negatives, the whole gets a negative reaction from me. Having said that, this makes the film only better for me, as I feel it increases its complexity. But I can certainly understand why someone would have a predominantly positive interpretation of the character.

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    lawless

    My perspective is different from either of yours — no surprise there, I imagine. I see Kurosawa’s portrayal of the lower levels of society here as realistic — within a range, of course; the desperate clawing of the junkie who dies at the end is overdone, as are some of the kidnapper’s contortions at the end of his conversation with Gondo. But other than in style, I don’t see the scene in Dope Alley as much different from, say, the heroin shooting gallery depicted in the final episode of S3 of Sherlock. The scene of the overdose at the villa is so peaceful that it takes a few seconds for the police to realize they’re dead and not sleeping. And the hospital incinerator caretaker (I doubt a manager would get so dirty) is dirty because his job is dirty. So I see the disgust as an audience response, not a directorial portrayal.

    As for the positive depiction of the police, I think that’s driven by narrative requirements, not ideology, and is, as another commenter says on another thread, part of the attraction of this movie. While it’s true that movies often depict the cops, or at least one of the higher ups, as bumbling or corrupt, it’s not universal. This is one of the reasons I’d like to know what the source material is like; if it also shows the police as uniformly competent, that suggests that there’s no political agenda behind it.

    I interpret what happens to the junkie differently from Ugetsu. The police didn’t expect the kidnapper to realize this might be a setup and test the heroin on someone else first. They did not “decide to trap the kidnapper in the act of murder;” they had their plan for capturing him at the villa go awry for reasons they didn’t anticipate. At most they can be faulted for a failure of imagination, and the idea of trapping him at the villa (potentially at the risk of their lives, not civilian lives) in order to be able to charge him with the murder of the caretakers was not unjustified. Similar decisions are made in TV procedurals all the time.

    The only false note struck here is connecting it with vindicating Gondo’s interests; Gondo is more interested in getting his money back. The only reason for Gondo (or Aoki, for that matter) to care whether the kidnapper gets 15 years or the death penalty is that he might be a danger to them after his release, considering that he’s already a murderer. And it’s the injustice of not having the evidence to charge him with and punish him for murder that bothers the police, not some fault within the justice system itself.

    (Speaking of police procedurals, I couldn’t help but wish that the police had known about cognitive interviewing; it might have gotten more clues from Shahachi about the location of the villa sooner. Instead of asking him an open-ended question and berating him for not remembering, like his father did, cognitive interviewing uses directed questions, like what he smelled and heard, and taking him through a step-by-step process. I’ve seen it used on the TV show Criminal Minds.)

    I also see Gondo differently. I don’t admire his competitiveness and single-minded obsession with obtaining control of National Shoes, though his tactics for doing so don’t bother me; what I admire is his single-minded concern for his customers and for putting out a quality product. I’m not as sure as he is that it’s the best way to maximize profits — increased cost limits demand, and he may only be able to recover his costs if his product is a high-end one — but wanting to put out an honest and durable product instead of disposable goods is admirable. So is his willingness to go back to his roots and start over, in a sense. But his personality is gruff enough that there are times when I’d appreciate it if he smoothed over the rough spots.

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