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High and Low: The Clock on the Wall

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    Ugetsu

    I’ve commented before that someone could do a PhD thesis on the architecture/fashion design of Kurosawa’s films. Obviously as an artist with a strong knowledge of European and Japanese art his set designs are very deliberate, and haven’t been given anywhere near the attention they deserve.

    The obvious set design feature of High and Low is the strikingly contemporary, high modern house Gondo lives. It always seemed to me to be somewhat out of character for a man with the humility and background as a craftsman to have chosen a house like this. It is the sort of house which would be owned by someone trying too hard to be accepted by the elites. As it is very modern, it presumably did not come as part of his wife’s dowry.

    But a sub-feature of the house caught my eye, and is given very high prominence in the second from last major scene. When the police arrive to find that the auctioneers are picking over the furniture, there is a curious moment when everyone stops and stares as the clock on the wall chimes. This clock stands out as being European and very old fashioned. I can’t image the sort of person who would choose such a modern house putting a monstrosity like that prominently on the wall (although of course the Japanese design eye might disagree). Its the sort of thing you would only do if it was given as a present by your mother in law and you had no choice but to have it up there if you don’t want her to make your life hell.

    Its presence is clearly not an accident – it even has its own close up, where we see the ‘for sale’ sticker on it (an unnecessary scene as we’ve already been shown that the furniture is being measured up for sale). It does seem to have some sort of symbolic importance for Kurosawa. But I have no idea what it could be. Any ideas?

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    Vili Maunula

    An interesting observation, Ugetsu. Perhaps it might be helpful to consider what part time plays in the film.

    In the first half, when the kidnapper is in control, time is of an essence and the plot moves forward with a hurried pace. It cannot be wasted. After the ransom has been paid, everything slows down considerably. Once the kidnapper has been identified, the police make the decision to prolong the investigation in order to set up the kidnapper to get him a harsher sentence. All the way through the story, the police judge the kidnapper’s actions and their own success in detaining him by correlating them to the time that he would have to pay with — 5 years in jail, 15 years in jail, and ultimately the hanging, or an eternity.

    In the scene that you refer to, the clock strikes for Gondo, for his time is up, or has indeed been for a while. His life is being sold from under him. One could ask whether things might be different if the police had not decided to seek their revenge but arrest the kidnapper the moment he was identified. Would recovering the money immediately have been enough to save Gondo’s possessions?

    What seems clear is that, had someone asked him, Gondo himself would never have insisted on prolonging the investigation in order to get the harsher sentence.

    Something can perhaps also be said about the time difference between Gondo and the kidnapper. A couple of decades separate them. It seems that both have come from difficult backgrounds, but Gondo has had more time to build his life, and get that house on the hill. Perhaps in a couple of decade’s time, the kidnapper could have found himself in a similar position. But he seemed to be in a rush.

    I don’t know, maybe I’m totally mistaken here.

    I must say though that even if I wouldn’t put a clock like that into my living room, I don’t think that it is meant to be seen as old fashioned. In fact, I think that it may have been meant as something very opposite, an expression of modern style. I saw quite many clocks like that in Japan. All had that same tune, as well. As did, I think, our school bell.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili, I think you are quite right – I was so hung up on the visual design of the clock – I’ll take your word for it that its a common type found in Japan, I really wouldn’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me – that I forgot about the possibility that it was time itself which is the motif. I think Kurosawa was always unsurpassed at conveying the passing of time through a film, I suppose largely through his mastery of editing, but also the use of clever little visual clues as to how much time has elapsed. I think that you are right that different conceptions of time are a key feature of the film. The chiming clock is, I think, meant to symbolise the ending of one phase of Gondo’s life. Its a little heavy handed I suppose, but very significant in marking the space between Gondo as senior executive (and potential kidnap victim) and the final scene.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ugetsu: Kurosawa was always unsurpassed at conveying the passing of time through a film

    Indeed, and I think much of it is thanks to his skills in the editing room. Although it perhaps is a little too direct, the way Kurosawa handles the passing of time in Sanshiro Sugata, with the lost shoe travelling through different seasons, is one of my favourites. The shoe becomes a character there, and almost a person. I wonder if it was meant as a synecdochical device.

    Ugetsu: Its a little heavy handed I suppose, but very significant in marking the space between Gondo as senior executive (and potential kidnap victim) and the final scene.

    Interestingly, by the final scene Gondo has already started his new life, so some time must have passed again. Gondo is no longer an executive, but he is again doing what he wants to do, which is designing good shoes. He talks about launching an attack on National Shoes, his former company.

    In a sense, he is now in the position that the kidnapper inhabited at the beginning of the film, looking at a target higher up on the hill. But Gondo’s plan of action is constructive rather than destructive. He seems to want to fight them by doing what he believes is right, rather than stopping them doing what he thinks is wrong.

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