Sacrifice and Responsibility in Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low

In Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku, Japan, 1963), a bungled kidnapping leads to the protagonist’s deep crisis of conscience. Wealthy Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) has to decide whether or not to pay the ransom demanded by a kidnapper who intended to abduct Gondo’s son but has taken his chauffeur’s son by mistake. Kurosawa’s film is an adaptation of Ed McBain’s novel King’s Ransom (first published in 1959), and it was also inspired by the increasing number of kidnapping cases in Japan in the early 1960s. For many Japanese, the punishment for kidnapping under Japanese law seemed too lenient, an opinion shared by a number of characters in the film. This crime-genre aspect is emphasized in the film’s third and final part, which resembles a police procedural in its hunt for the kidnapper, who has also murdered his two accomplices and a third person. However, High and Low is less concerned with crime investigation and legal problems than with moral questions and human behaviour. The search for the criminal creates moments of high suspense, but it is the latent tension permeating the film that makes it outstanding.

Gondo is a successful businessman living in a huge modern building at the top of a hill overlooking the city of Yokohama. Production manager at National Shoes, he is negotiating a deal to become the company’s major shareholder when he is informed that his small son has been kidnapped. It very quickly becomes clear that the kidnapped child is the son of the chauffeur (Yukata Sada) and that he was abducted while the two boys were playing in the garden of Gondo’s villa.

Gondo is depicted as a tough businessman intent on buying the other shareholders out in order to gain control of National Shoes. His emotionless and ambitious attitude is revealed when he advises his son, playing cowboys with the chauffeur’s child: “Don’t run – hide and trap the sheriff. With men it’s either win or lose. Get going, win!” His wife (Kyoko Kagawa) states at one point that both father and son like violent games, and she complains about her husband’s changed personality: “You’ve become harder … in your work. Don’t sacrifice others to succeed.”

Despite having abducted the wrong child, the kidnapper is demanding an enormous sum of money, which Gondo refuses to pay. His dilemma is less about freeing from captivity another man’s child and more about losing the money he needs for his deal and about endangering his plans for the future. The focus in the first part of the film, shot almost entirely in Gondo’s living room, is on the protagonist’s inner struggle between saving the boy or his deal. Mifune’s restrained but highly nuanced acting reveals magisterially Gondo’s inner turmoil, oscillating between anger and frustration and his wish to do the right thing. Although he shouts: “I won’t listen to anyone. I won’t pay”, he is nevertheless unable to hide his agitation – his fingers drumming on his thighs betraying the inner struggle despite his outward determination. On another occasion, Gondo walks back and forth the length of the bay window, his hand running along the closed curtains, explaining to his chauffeur that he will not be able to raise enough money to pay the ransom. When he finally stops, fists clenched and shoulders slightly bent, his tenseness is that of a man who is unconvinced by his own arguments.

Mifune conveys Gondo’s moral dilemma by physical means, finding the perfect balance between energy and quiescence to match Kurosawa’s economical directing. Facial expressions and gestures reveal Gondo’s irritation when he pulls the curtains of the bay window open only to close them almost immediately when warned by the police officers that the kidnapper might be observing his house. His angry reaction is that of a man who is no longer in control of his life.

Gondo is a complex character – a self-made man who has not forgotten his humble origins. The police officers are surprised when the rich Gondo himself prepares the bags in which the ransom money will be put, creating spaces to hide a special powder that would turn the smoke pink in case the bags were burned. His practical but professional attitude at that moment earns him the respect of the policemen, who had up to that point regarded him as only a rich and pretentious and not very likeable man. Moreover, Gondo, who started his career as a shoemaker, is opposed to the new market strategies at National Shoes, which the other three directors favour. In the long opening sequence, he demonstrates the inferior quality of the new, cheaply produced shoes his fellow directors intend to market by tearing one apart, declaring belligerently: “I can’t do this.” And he adds: “I make ideal shoes, easy to wear, stylish, durable.”

After agreeing to pay the ransom, Gondo quits his job to found his own company, regaining his independence but having to start from scratch. However, he has gained the respect of not only the police agents, as his sacrifice has turned him into a public hero. And he is supported by his wife, who is willing to share his chosen future, even if this means giving up luxury and leaving their magnificent home.

In High and Low, Kurosawa links these ethical considerations with a dark portrayal of post-war Japan’s emerging consumer society. The shots accompanying the opening credits showing the industrial landscape of 1960s Japan place the film in the context of a society experiencing rapid economic growth, and Kurosawa criticizes the profit-oriented society by presenting almost caricature portrayals of industrialists interested only in personal gain – for example the other directors of National Shoes and Gondo’s main creditors (he had to mortgage his house as part of his plan to become President of National Shoes). The creditors do not mince their words: “Sympathy is free, but we have invested money; we can’t afford sympathy.”

Gondo’s inner struggle is also contrasted with the hypocritical and egoistic attitude of his assistant Kawanishi (Tatsuya Mihashi), who at first violently opposes the idea of accepting the kidnapper’s demand but then changes his mind, pretending that not paying will have a devastating effect on Gondo’s public image. However, it is suggested that at this point in the film, Kawanishi’s professional career no longer depends on Gondo and that he has made a deal with the other directors, who have offered him promotion in return for information on Gondo’s plans.

The portrayal of Japanese society and of Gondo’s inner torment is expressed by visual means, by acting and by mise-en-scène. In the first part of the film, Kurosawa makes use of widescreen, transforming Gondo’s living room into a space in which the intimate connection between emotions and the setting is displayed. In the film’s first sequence, showing Gondo’s meeting with the three other directors – Kawanishi also with them – Gondo is the central figure, frequently isolated by framing to direct attention to him. After the kidnapping, he is filmed at some distance from the other characters in the same huge room – the policemen, his wife, Kawanishi, the chauffeur – revealing his loneliness while facing matters of life and death.

In the film’s second part, space is used as an important means to explore social division as represented by Gondo’s villa at the top of the hill and the kidnapper’s shack in the slum at the bottom, from which he jealously observes Gondo’s splendid home. Kurosawa invokes a variety of contrasting elements in his exploration of social inequality. For example, the sequences shot in Gondo’s house are dominated by linearity and luminosity, with the bay window adding transparency, whereas those in the slum reveal the gloomy environment of narrow streets and run-down houses, culminating in nightmarish scenes with the drug addicts, who look like living corpses in their bleak surroundings.

However, High and Low goes far beyond these binary structures and blurs the dividing lines between good and evil, as is revealed in the final sequence, in which Gondo meets the kidnapper Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki) just before the latter’s execution. In the glass partition that separates the two men, each also sees a mirrored reflection of the other’s face. But while Takeuchi’s words express only hatred and self-pity, Gondo asks: “Why must we hate each other?” Unlike the pitiful criminal, he has recognized his ugly side for what it is and has made a choice by assuming responsibility for others. And this sacrifice concerns not only his family – by renouncing his former lifestyle, Kingo Gondo also offers an alternative to a corrupt society of rapid growth, a society dominated by egoism and materialism.

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