Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Revisit: High & Low

A Toho Company release 1963

Directed by
Akira Kurosawa

Writing credits:
Evan Hunter (novel)
Eijirô Hisaita
Ryuzo Kikushima
Akira Kurosawa
Hideo Oguni

Akira Kurosawa’s High & Low presents a specific social duality – namely class difference, though other tensions exist as well – and uses it as a springboard for an intense reading of Japan’s socio-economic conditions and struggling nationalism. The film examines the events surrounding a kidnapping in three parts: a permutational representation of the wealthy victims’ response to the crime in a single space, a chaotic, splintered chase to catch the destitute criminal across multiple settings, and a final confrontation between victim and criminal. (The possibility of dividing the film into almost five parts is perhaps more accurate, but for reasons of clarity, I’m going to keep it at three.) The concept of poor acting out against rich culminates in the final scene in which the two protagonists, kidnapper and victim, meet for the first, and last time in a holding cell. Separated by glass and wire, the two sit face to face. “Why are you so convinced that it is right we hate each other?” Gondo, the victim, asks Takeuchi, the criminal. Takeuchi laughs at this question, declaring his lack of regret or fear of death, but it becomes clear that he is bluffing as his body trembles and he ultimately breaks down, screaming and grabbing the wire. As the criminal is dragged away by prison guards, a shutter falls over the wire and glass, and Gondo is left sitting alone, staring at his own reflection.

The two texts on Kurosawa by Stephen Prince and Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto offer approximately three interpretations of this ending. Prince writes, “Social reality, the existence and structure of class relations, is veiled, mystified to the sight of both an executive living at the heights of society and a criminal who is aware of profoundly unequal standards of living” (196). He concludes that the two men remain unchanged and separated at the end of the film, and that Kurosawa’s formal operations support this division. Yoshimoto agrees that the division is exists, but rather writes, “What is important is not necessarily heaven or hell by itself but the contiguity of the two and the various kinds of boundaries – spatial, ethical, class – between them” (325). Yoshimoto dismisses straightforward political and humanist interpretations of the film as falling short, and offers his own interpretation: that Gondo’s actions are a means of “reconstructing the identity and unity of the Japanese nation” (331).

I mention these ideas because I feel there is a lot of worth in them, while simultaneously they do not account for all of the thematic implications of the film. (In particular, I am partial to Yoshimoto’s reading of the film; he digs much deeper than Prince and pursues more complicated ideas.)

Like many Kurosawa characters, Gondo and Takeuchi exhibit many similar traits that act to implicate a connected duality – a refusal of sentimentality, certain aggressiveness and drive to achieve what is desired. Yoshimoto writes, “To some extent, Gondo’s frustration comes from the fact that he confronts his own double, who has outsmarted him at his own game” (315). And yet, the divisions between Gondo and Takeuchi could not be more clear; morally, socially, and physically the two are kept separate. The end of the film supports this conflicted representation both formally and in content. The two characters are clearly separated by a large panel of wire and glass, yet Kurosawa’s camera occasionally allows the reflection of each to overlap.

Ultimately, communication is never established between the two characters. Despite his best efforts, Gondo can never understand why Takeuchi acted as he did, nor can Takeuchi understand Gondo’s position. This is another division between the characters that Prince chalks up to being representative of economic disparity – the ‘high’ unable to reconcile with the ‘low’ and vice versa. However, this interpretation positions each character on an equal playing field, that the audience’s understanding of each places them as similarly desperate, destroyed figures. I do not think that this is completely accurate. Economically, Gondo and Takeuchi are placed on similar planes – after all, Gondo momentarily faces a life of destitution. But although Gondo is removed from the latter half of the film, sympathies lie in his plight at the end. His ‘humanist’ act destroys his career and economic standing, but simultaneously makes him a martyr in the eyes of the public media, an unexpected result of Takeuchi’s actions. Consequentially, Gondo is offered his job back, although he refuses with hopes to start his own company. The film loses sight of Gondo as a main protagonist precisely at the point when his economic standing is unclear, but public and media (as well as audience) sympathies for his situation has reached a new high. It can almost be assumed that Gondo will succeed in the future after a bout of poverty, thanks to his found popularity from the incident.

Thus the ending of the film treats Gondo sympathetically. Though he ultimately cannot understand his rival’s position, it is no coincidence that he makes the only attempt at reconciliation. Formally, Kurosawa dwells on Takeuchi throughout the final scene, using POV shots from Gondo’s perspective to slowly unravel the criminal’s madness. In an interesting side note, Takeuchi was a medical student studying to be a doctor, the irony of which acts to further implicate his mental instability. Nor is the opportunity for sympathetic alignment allowed with Takeuchi, despite his economic conditions, because of the constant negative visual representation of his character.

Yoshimoto writes, “Gondo’s action is a means of reconstructing the identity and unity of the Japanese nation” (331). He supports this idea with evidence of Kurosawa’s formal construction of the character and paradoxical use of distinct Japanese symbols. I think that in understanding Gondo as a sympathetic, rather than humanist character, this interpretation is further supported. Gondo’s transitory poverty will eventually place him both on the ‘high’ and ‘low’ ends of the economic ladder, and it will be up to him to regain his status. In such a sense, Gondo could represent Japan as a nation, struggling to come to terms with its post-war woes. It would make sense, then, for sympathies to lie with Gondo. The question now becomes of what to make of Takeuchi. Perhaps we can also look at Gondo and Takeuchi as opposing mental capacities, i.e. sane versus insane, rather than strictly as economic opposites. Either way, I support Yoshimoto’s claims that the film is an attempt to reconcile modern Japan as a nation, while I also feel it is not completely true to the presentation of Gondo as a character.

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