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High and Low: The Human Condition

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    Ryan

    So I wrote an essay, and it’s the first one I’ve used referencing in. In that regard, and with the depth of time, effort and research I put into it, it’s perhaps my first proper film analysis essay. I decided to analyse the final scene. Any thoughts welcome.

    High and Low (or its more aptly titled Japanese name; Tengoku to jigoku; literally Heaven and Hell) is an important film possessing a large degree of significance in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. It would serve to be the penultimate collaboration between Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune; a productive and successful 17-year relationship unparalleled in the history of cinema. It is also one of the final films in which Kurosawa tackles social issues in contemporary Japan. Kurosawa’s masterful direction would also begin to decline following this film and his 1965 masterpiece Red Beard. And yet, High and Low remains a starkly undervalued film, a forgotten film, a film which not only accurately portrayed the social climate of Japan but also helped shape it. Since its release in 1963, it has been eclipsed in both popularity and critical acclaim by many undeserving films sharing its genre. By analysing the final scene of the film, which is perhaps the most important scene for Kurosawa to put his message across, I wish to express not only my sincere appreciation for the film, but indeed the significance of its moral and social implications on 1960’s Japan.

    The final scene of High and Low is one of the most powerful and understated scenes in Kurosawa’s whole body of work. Before dissecting this scene, an explanation of the film’s content and narrative structure is necessary. The story, loosely based on King’s Ransom, a police procedural novel by Ed McBain, is split into two acts. The first concerns the kidnapping of the son of a chauffeur who works for Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), an executive director of a shoe company. Gondo, despite knowing that his entire fortune will be ruined, pays the ransom demanded by the kidnapper for the safe return of the child. This act is shot primarily within Gondo’s apartment, perched high up on a hill – the “high” or the “heaven” that is referred to in the title. The second half of the film surrounds the efforts of the police to try to regain the money and catch the criminal. It is revealed that the criminal is a young medical intern by the name of Ginjirô Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki) who has murdered the accomplices involved in the kidnapping and has sold heroin to addicts. Once caught by the police, he is imprisoned and sentenced to death. His final request is to see Gondo. They converse and the film ends with Takeuchi being dragged away from the confrontation in an uncontrollable outrage. The latter half of the film primarily occupies the lower depths – the “low” or the “hell”.

    Perhaps the most discussed aspect of High and Low, and indeed the most ambiguous, is its final scene in which Gondo and Takeuchi are separated by wire mesh and a glass pane. The panel of glass separating them is harshly lit so as to bring out their reflections. The close-ups of each character are superimposed onto one another so that when one is speaking, the face of the other overlaps this image. The succession of overlapped images implies that both Gondo and Takeuchi share an identification with one another. This is ironic as their relationship had previously been defined by their differences and opposition. This theme of identification and duality is one which continually arises throughout the films of Kurosawa (as in Sanshiro Sugata, Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, Yojimbo and Kagemusha, amongst others). The obvious implication is that only now, sharing the same social class, and having both gone through “hell”, do they share a bond; a connection. Whereas before they were separated by a social divide, they are now relatively equal.

    The relationship between Gondo and Takeuchi is further defined through the mise-en-scène. The mise-en-scène in High and Low, particularly the striking use of space and blocking, is far more clear-cut. The proximity between Gondo and Takeuchi in the final scene is in absolute contrast to that of earlier in the film whereby they are separated by their corresponding social conditions (Gondo’s apartment is in heaven – it is high up, as his social status; Takeuchi meanwhile has a shack in hell – low down, similarly reflecting his social status). Such symbolism is emphasised throughout the entire film and here it is particularly striking as they share the same environment – hell. Gondo has lost his entire fortune and thus now shares the same social class as Takeuchi. Consequently, the lack of space, the proximity of the walls and the physical closeness of the two characters has been used to successfully establish propinquity between Takeuchi and Gondo. Moreover, this closed environment will serve, as it does in the first act of the film, as a useful platform to heighten and intensify emotions. This is further complimented by Kurosawa’s use of shot reverse shot which, along with the immobility of the camera, functions as a means to avoid any diversion of emotion. Just as surely as Gondo and Takeuchi have been isolated by spatial relativity, they have both been defined by it and now share an identification with it. Only through such an identification does Gondo finally understand the motive of the crime. It is here then, through the use of both space and blocking, in which Kurosawa puts a period to the clear methodical exploration of spatial awareness consistently investigated earlier on in the film.

    This issue of identification though, while clearly evident, has led to differing interpretations. It has been argued that “Both characters have been locked in a dynamic in which each, in a sense, has defined the other. Heaven requires hell; low is defined by high” (Prince 2008). Similarly, it has also been suggested that “the motif of the double becomes so explicit that the hero and the villain can be interpreted as two conflicting aspects of the split subject instead of two autonomous individuals” (Yoshimoto 2000:328). While both of these interpretations imply a form of duplicity, it has also been proposed that “[Kurosawa] is suggesting that, despite everything, good and evil are the same, that all men are equal” (Richie 1996:170). This interpretation, on the other hand, suggests a conclusive form of oneness. But this is a misguided assumption. Throughout High and Low, the audience has witnessed an intention to emphasise and criticise the stark differences in social class in contemporary capitalist Japanese society. The title in itself suggests a clear inequality. Therefore, a final statement denoting that all men are equal would negate all that of which has been made precedent. A note of irony in theme, while plausible, would ultimately only serve to lessen any impact the film has to make. The concept of duplicity is a more acceptable interpretation, as it implies both a strong identification yet a definite divide between both characters.

    A major difference dividing them is that Gondo, not unlike a typical Ozu character, accepts the system for what it is, and takes no action against it. Takeuchi, on the other hand, must revolt against the poisonous structure which has oppressed him. His rage against the established coda, and Kurosawa’s rather sympathetic portrayal of Takeuchi throughout some points in High and Low (Cardullo et al. 1975/2008:59), hints at an autobiographical nature which Kurosawa, in part, identifies with, though he clearly does not condone the act of kidnapping (Kurosawa made High and Low primarily to criticise the lax laws in Japan which gave kidnappers relatively short sentences, even for child kidnappings, which had risen sharply since the immediate post-war years). Therefore, rather than suggesting that Takeuchi and Gondo are one and the same, Kurosawa is instead highlighting that their similarities (Takeuchi may even be Gondo’s doppelganger) have been stripped away by an unnatural and inhumane class structure. Perhaps in a natural social hierarchy, Gondo and Takeuchi could have been acquaintances. But then, what is a natural social hierarchy?

    Evidently then, the ending of High and Low is fairly enigmatic. It has to be for Kurosawa does not aim to preach but rather, aims to present both the solutions and problems caused by Japan’s economic boom since the immediate post-war years. He does this primarily through the use of reflecting surfaces. The concept of reflection cannot be an exercise in didacticism and this simultaneously applies to the final scene of High and Low. After Gondo expresses compassion and a form of understanding towards Takeuchi, he bursts into some kind of frenzy. There is a great irony here as his brain, the “high” part of his body, does not repent nor regret, much like those belonging to the “high” part of society – the executives at the beginning of the film certainly do not regret their part in destroying Gondo and ignoring customer needs, along with the Yakuza demanding their money from Gondo, and even the police express no remorse at using ruthless methods to achieve a death sentence for Takeuchi. The “low” part of his body, on the other hand, seems in fact to be in a process of remorse, as indicated by its shaking. Following this outburst though, he is promptly dragged out of the room, and a metal shutter falls down leaving Gondo to face his own reflection. This is a haunting image, one of self-reflection. Kurosawa wants the audience to look at themselves, their role in society and where they fit within this absurd and unnatural social hierarchy. Are we all victims of the system we so aim to exploit? And is crime caused by one’s innate traits or one’s social environment? Kurosawa poses interesting questions, and the unanswerable nature of them alludes to the ambiguity of the ending.

    As if to make things vaguer, and to continue on this theme of reflection, Kurosawa plays on varying forms of it throughout High and Low as a means to underline the concept of “illusion and reality” and the ways in which “reality is counterfeited” (Richie 1996:168-170). The criminal is first introduced through his reflection shown in a polluted river. He subsequently reads a newspaper and listens to a radio to get updated with news on Gondo (the police later use this to their advantage by having the media dictate erroneous information). As such, information through media is an illusion, not reality. Meanwhile, to catch the criminal, the police use various surveillance methods such as binoculars, film cameras and audio recordings. What the police are using are technological tools which provide a “distortion of reality” (Richie 1996:168). Just as the surveillance methods used earlier in the film are abnormal, unnatural and inaccurate representations of reality, as is the social structure itself. The illusion of capitalism (or rather, the social structure within it) is one that is upheld as an ideal, but in reality, it is plagued with inequality, poverty and corruption. Similarly, the last scene in High and Low also offers a contrast which suggests that while the illusion of their reflections displays that they should be equal, in reality they are not. We can assume, therefore, that Kurosawa is mocking the system which supposedly upholds both human rights and the equality of all people. Given Kurosawa’s past history and attachment to Marxism, and his criticism of similar themes previously explored in Scandal and The Bad Sleep Well, this is especially plausible. Again, Takeuchi may be, in part, a semi-autobiographical character for Kurosawa.

    While it has been suggested that “Gondo, until the end, remains blind to the “low”” (Prince 1999:196), this is not entirely true. While there is plausibility to this argument in the dialogue, we witness a change in Gondo visually. The lighting brings out what appears to be tears in Gondo’s eyes, an unexpected sight given his hardboiled character as witnessed throughout the whole first half of High and Low. This change of expression shows, however minimally or short term it may very well be, that Gondo has gone through a process of transformation. Nevertheless, Gondo asks Takeuchi “Why are you so convinced that it is right that we hate each other?” This question is important because through inquiring why they must hate one another, Gondo has perhaps exposed himself as close minded toward the social cause of the crime. Perhaps the capitalist environment he has been so enraptured by has corrupted him and his ability to understand issues concerning the lower class; a class he was formerly part of. However, the underlying compassion behind the question does show that Gondo is sympathetic towards Takeuchi, and through sympathy comes understanding. It is through such sympathy that we as an audience know that Gondo has learned that fundamental moral lesson, one which Kurosawa keeps returning to, deriving from Dostoevsky (who had a profound influence on Kurosawa and his works) and that is “that we are responsible for everyone and for all things” (Prince 2008). This moral enlightenment therefore solidifies Gondo as an archetypal Kurosawa hero.

    And yet, ironically, one cannot help but feel empathy for Takeuchi. And it is empathy, not sympathy, which we feel because we understand why. We understand the social cause of his crime. Despite his vile acts, we possess a strange identification with Takeuchi, as does Gondo. This relationship between spectator (us, the audience) and screen is symbolised literally in the last scene by which Gondo is the spectator, on behalf of the audience, whilst Takeuchi is behind a literal screen, and vice versa. The fact that the camera shots alternate between the two and from both perspectives confirms that Kurosawa wants us to relate to both. Stephen Prince wisely concludes that “Perhaps the terrible secret at the heart of High and Low is that Takeuchi is the human condition” (2008). And that he is, hence our unquestionable identification with him.

    High and Low then, imbedded with profound meanings few filmmakers are capable of, is clearly an important document in Japanese cinema. With an aim to criticise both the lenient legislation on kidnapping crimes in Japan at the time and the large social gap between those at the top and bottom, Kurosawa succeeded in influencing social and legislative change. But High and Low is not merely a product of its time and it does not only seek to address the problems of an increasingly Westernised Japanese society. It is not so much a social commentary as it is a commentary on the human condition. That Kurosawa concluded High and Low on both a sombre and ambiguous note is no surprise. Just as surely as High and Low is ridden with reflections of the self, Kurosawa no doubt sought to answer that innate question which had been so important to him since the post-war years. And that is, “why can’t people be happier together?” (Richie 1996:243). High and Low perhaps came closest to answering that unanswerable of all questions, that concerning human nature, that which will never be solved. As Gondo faces his self-reflection in search of truths, we are there with him, in limbo. The crime has been solved, nothing has been truly learned. And therein lies the greatest of ironies. Through learning everything, we have learned nothing.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Congratulations, Ryan, on your first essay!

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    Vili Maunula

    An absorbing read Ryan, thanks for posting it!

    The idea of the high and low dichotomy playing in Takeuchi’s body in the final scene is really interesting.

    You write about the two main characters that “A major difference dividing them is that Gondo, not unlike a typical Ozu character, accepts the system for what it is, and takes no action against it.” It would be interesting if you could explore this thought further. You see, I personally tend to approach the two characters in a fairly different way. Gondo has worked his way up the social ladder (he has come from a low social class, perhaps very low), while Takeuchi lazily assumes that things are like they are, and that because of this he is somehow morally entitled to do what he does. This is, however, somewhat puzzling considering that he is hardly a lowlife considering that he is studying medicine — in fact, the social class that he was born into was very possibly higher than Gondo’s.

    For me, the film is then not critical of the capitalist system, only of people like the executives who misuse the system for purely personal gain. Gondo, although first trying to convince himself that he can forget about his driver’s son, ultimately makes that decision that “we are responsible for everyone and for all things”, and agrees to pay even if it means financial ruin for him. Takeuchi, meanwhile, never shows compassion for others, indeed I wonder if he is even able to see others as living and breathing human beings.

    Yet, you are right that there is something very seductive about Takeuchi — something that, despite everything, makes us feel for him and even identify with him.

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    Ugetsu

    Great writing Ryan, I enjoyed reading it.

    To add to your references, I quoted from Mellen when i was discussing her book in another thread:

    At the center of High and Low is the question of what the individual has a right to expect from the society in which he lives. In Japan, where, as Chie Nakane reminds us, a vertical hierarchy governing all relationships persists and one is always first subject to a predetermined status within a collective; to demand a style of life different from that afforded by one’s allotted place in the system constitutes extreme rebellion. In a social order which functions only so long as everyone accepts his place, to challenge one’s position amounts to a revolt against the organisation of the entire society. Ironically, Kurosawa makes his rebellious kidnapper an interne studying to be a doctor, a person who will soon enter the medical profession; this kidnapper is soon to share in the benefits enjoyed by the privileged within Japanese society. Yet, according to Kurosawa, it is just such a man, about to escape his poverty, who revolts, a man who knows he will soon enjoy a better station in life.

    It is a brilliant insight on Kurosawa’’s part that it is precisely a man soon to escape it who would find his poverty so intolerable that he would jeaopardize his entire future by becoming a kidnapper. History confirms that those who become revolutionaries are usually not the poorest and most hopeless, but exactly those who have begun to taste the fruits of prosperity and thus are much more aware of the pain of inequity. Japanese critics like Tadao Sato, who have insisted that an interne would never become a kidnapper and that therefore High and Low is based upon an incredible premise, reveal themselves as simply incapable of grasping the depth of Kurosawa’s social vision.

    In the last scene of High and Low the kidnapper faces Gondo, the man he ruined, from behind his prison bars. He asserts his right not to have to live in “a three-tatami room, freezing in winter, stifling in summer”. It is a challenge to the class structure of Japan, because the kidnapper was inspired to his crime by the sight of Gondo’s white mansion high on the bluff, overlooking with supreme indifference the entire city of Yokohama, including the slums below where he himself lived. “Your house looked like heaven,” he tells Gondo.

    Gondo has asked “Must we hate each other?” and the implied answer is that they are both more than individuals. They also represent the inequity between rich and poor. As men, they might have been friends. As fellow Japanese, victimized by living in a society that makes life heaven for some and hell for others, they can only hate and fear each other. The arbitrariness of class differences is expressed by Kurosawa as he has Gondo’s face reflected in the glass behind which the kidnapper views him. Gondo’s face is as if superimposed upon that of this impoverished man, driven to drug addiction and murder by an intolerable existence. The point is plain. One could as well have been the other.

    Its an interesting contrast I think to Richie and Prince.

    A point I think that is sometimes overlooked in the film is that there is a duplicity not just between the two characters, but within the characters themselves. Gondo is both low born and high achieving, while the kidnapper is not the street thug everyone assumed. I think Kurosawa is saying that we find it difficult to read other people because we ourselves are capable of both good and evil – the struggle is both within ourselves and with evil outside ourselves.

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    Ryan

    For me, the film is then not critical of the capitalist system, only of people like the executives who misuse the system for purely personal gain

    Yes I quite agree with you. Rather than being critical of the capitalist system, it is those within it, or rather human greed, that Kurosawa is specifically criticising. But then the capitalist system is a human invention, and the structure of it does both aim for and reward greed. So in that sense I think his criticism of the capitalist system is rather the same as criticising those that exploit it. I think one of Kurosawa’s main problem with capitalism is that the system itself will always contain and be dominated by such people. It is human nature that this will not change.

    Ugetsu: Thank you, though I have already read and referenced the book in my bibliography! And your point about duplicity being within the characters is very interesting and I agree very much with it. Now that I think about it, it is so blatant that I’m surprised I’ve never picked up on it. I’m surprised further that this point hasn’t been touched upon by Prince and co.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ryan: Rather than being critical of the capitalist system, it is those within it, or rather human greed, that Kurosawa is specifically criticising. But then the capitalist system is a human invention, and the structure of it does both aim for and reward greed. So in that sense I think his criticism of the capitalist system is rather the same as criticising those that exploit it. I think one of Kurosawa’s main problem with capitalism is that the system itself will always contain and be dominated by such people. It is human nature that this will not change.

    I largely agree with what you say, but I don’t draw the same conclusions at all.

    The character with a heart in the story is a capitalist, while the kidnapper and killer is a radical of some sort who rebels against that capitalist as he thinks that it is unfair that some have more than others. I find it too simplistic to see the film as a criticism of any political or economic system.

    I guess the way you read the film depends on your own views of society. I just don’t personally think that capitalism aims for greed. It certainly allows it, but then again if you look at other options such as the socialist model, even the most anti-capitalist systems have tended to be consumed by individuals’ greed and power-mania. It is therefore people who are greedy, not economic models, and it is people who ruin it for everyone, regardless of the system. In Kurosawa’s film, we have both good capitalists and bad capitalists, and while Gondo for a while tries to assume the role of the latter, he doesn’t in the end find it in himself to be cold and selfish.

    For me then, the film is about that struggle within ourselves that Ugetsu mentioned. Kurosawa well knew that there was little point in trying to patch up political or economic models as long as it is the human condition that needs fixing up. And unlike you, I have the feeling that Kurosawa at this point in his career still believed that the human nature could be changed.

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    Ryan

    Perhaps rather hypocritically, I find myself agreeing with you again, though I also agree with what I said previously! I think we’re on the same sort of line though as what I say in my final paragraph seems to me what you believe the film to be about.

    But High and Low is not merely a product of its time and it does not only seek to address the problems of an increasingly Westernised Japanese society. It is not so much a social commentary as it is a commentary on the human condition.

    At what point in his career did you think Kurosawa felt that human nature cannot be changed? After Red Beard? I certainly feel that he was more optimistic towards human nature earlier on in his career, especially after the immediate post-war years.

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    Ugetsu

    Vili

    Kurosawa well knew that there was little point in trying to patch up political or economic models as long as it is the human condition that needs fixing up.

    I think this is a very important insight. I think that Kurosawas experience as a left wing agitator in the 1930’s and his work during the war convinced him that there was no ‘right’ system. He saw all systems of governments as doomed to failure for as long as people (or to be specific Japanese people) refused to look to themselves as the source of good and evil in the world. I think it is this combination of his exposure and satirical look at what was wrong in Japan combined with his refusal to offer a political ‘solution’ that so enraged his critics in the 1960’s and 1970’s. His heroes always stood up against ‘the Man’ whoever that ‘man’ happens to be. I think his subsequent loss of faith from Red Beard onward was his failure to find another path after concluding that we don’t have enough Red Beards in society to make a real difference.

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    Vili Maunula

    Ryan: Perhaps rather hypocritically, I find myself agreeing with you again, though I also agree with what I said previously! I think we’re on the same sort of line though as what I say in my final paragraph seems to me what you believe the film to be about.

    Indeed, looking at it now I seem to have only repeated in my conclusion what you had already written! We see the film very similarly, and only arrive to our interpretation by traversing slightly different paths.

    Ryan: At what point in his career did you think Kurosawa felt that human nature cannot be changed? After Red Beard?

    This is a very good question. Red Beard certainly seems like Kurosawa’s ultimate attempt at influencing human nature through film. The works after that appear to become more meditative and more pessimistic about the idea, and I have previously interpreted Ran as something like a final conclusion or public admission that cinema just cannot change the world. The films following Ran shift their focus elsewhere.

    Whether Kurosawa ever lost faith in the human nature itself (as opposed to cinema’s abilities to change it) is yet another question. I don’t think he did.

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    lawless

    If I may jump in here despite my lack of direct knowledge, having never seen High and Low, just read about it: From what I know of Kurosawa, I consider it highly unlikely Kurosawa was using this movie as a critique of capitalism. Perhaps it was an incidental examination of capitalism, but as Vili says, it’s the hypocritical radical (hypocritical in the sense that he likely is from a higher social status originally than Gondo and even now is training for a profession, which I think at that time was still more respected than being a successful businessman) who is the villain of the piece! Its being a meditation on how life is what we make of it, irrespective of our social condition, is more consistent with his body of work.

    Also, he strikes me as suspicious of pat answers, perhaps, as suggested, from his past experience with radicals in the 30s and the war machine in the 40s. Having traveled a similar path from Black Panther sympathizer in the 60s to an advocate of free market capitalism combined with intelligent and effective regulation, I can empathize.

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    Jeremy

    Just in to say, like the others, you presented a great read Ryan.

    To avoid redundancy, I’ll simply state, to criticize only a system and/or to suggest another, is to ignore the human condition that allows both greed and compassion to exist regardless of what forces may be present; such simplicity, and naivety is far beyond that of Kurosawa.

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    cocoskyavitch

    Ryan, if I were reading this in a book, or as a published critique in a journal, it seems that it would have more impact if the last scene is separated out as the culminating point to the arguments regarding reflection (particularly) discussion of spatial relationships as conveyors of emotion and meaning, and the discussion of illusion and reality. That’s only my suggestion, and it might not be worthy of your research and effort. I’m only thinking of building to a final whallop as the film does, and it might not be necessary.

    “Both characters have been locked in a dynamic in which each, in a sense, has defined the other. Heaven requires hell; low is defined by high” (Prince 2008).

    I don’t know if I have mentioned it, but I noticed a few years ago in Italy, on the island of Torcello in the old Byzantine church, a depiction of Hell, and on closer inspection saw that the fiery lake of the damned began as a small leak from Christ that flows to encompass all of Hell. So, the idea that Heaven requires Hell has some basis in Christian iconographic tradition. The idea that Hell is created by Heaven was profoundly disturbing! I’m still not sure I am over it!

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    gorhob

    Very interesting essay, thanks from 2015. 🙂

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