“Whether people be of high or low birth, rich or poor, old or young, enlightened or confused, they are all alike in that they will one day die. It is not that we don’t know that we are going to die, but we grasp at straws. While knowing that we will die someday, we think that all the others will die before us and that we will be the last to go. Death seems a long way off. Is this not shallow thinking? It is worthless and is only a joke within a dream. It will not do to think in such a way and be negligent. Insofar as death is always at one’s door, one should make sufficient effort and act quickly.”

— Tsunetomo Yamamoto 山本常朝, Hagakure 葉隠

Classic Old School Flick – High & Low

Classic Old School Flick - High & Low

High & Low – Akira Kurosawa

By the time 1963 rolled around for Akira Kurosawa, he had already directed Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood (the Japanese MacBeth), The Hidden Fortress (known to have deeply influenced George Lucas’ Star Wars scenes on Tatooine), Yojimbo (the scenario for which Sergio Leone would later base A Fistful of Dollars aka The Man with No Name Spaghetti Western Trilogy opener) as well as 17 other films, earning himself the nickname “Tenno” (meaning emperor), before taking on his next challenge, High and Low.

Toshirō Mifune starred in 16 of Kurosawa’s films, almost always playing the samurai he came to epitomize to the world. In High & Low, Mifune plays Gondo, a hard-working executive of a shoe company whose son becomes the target of a kidnapping plot. The kidnappers mistakenly nab his chauffeur’s son, yet Gondo still vows to get the child back. He fronts his own money despite the possibility of a ruined business transaction and personal financial shame. In truth, Mifune’s Gondo is still very much the character he mastered in all of those bushido-era films, tough and pragmatic, austere and sentimental, a samurai warrior in businessman’s clothing. Very Musashi Miyamoto (a role he portrayed in the 1954-56 Samurai Trilogy – directed by Hiroshi Inagaki). Kurosawa said that Mifune could display in three feet of film what it took others ten. That is possibly why his career spans six decades and over 150 films. Often playing a ronin, that is to say a samurai with no retainer, what his portrayals represent is a sense of the outsider’s role in society. Yet behind the characters he played there are the very real similarities he brought to his films, experiences and actions he could call on to deliver in a film so different, at least on the surface, from his usual character. In life, as in his art, it seems he always understood the Samurai mindset that “death is always at one’s door, (so) one should make sufficient effort and act quickly.”

Born in Qingdao, China to Japanese parents who had emigrated to Dalian under what were likely the auspices of Imperial Japan’s attempts to Japanify “Manchukuo” via the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, he was as outsider from birth. As a non-Buddhist (he had ties to Methodism) and an actor he had little chance to marry well after returning home from working in the Japanese aerial photography unit during World War II, yet he managed to convince the parents of a respected family to do just that. It seemed he threw himself into everything he did, full force: his marriage, his mistress(es), his children, his films, roles, smoking, and what eventually became a three decade rift between arguably the greatest director / actor collaboration in film history.

Classic Old School Flick - High & Low

Follow the man in the glasses…

High & Low (天国と地獄), the second to last film the pair worked on together, is arguably one of his most interesting portrayals of stratified class systems in Japan, though in reality a story that transcends race and borders. Focusing on the beginning of Japan’s economic boom in the early 60s, it is filled with stark contrasts ranging from the monochrome film stock itself to the societal hierarchies Kurosawa portrays with his brand of bare-bones cinematography, a kind of harsh tenderness set to film, letting the story unfold naturally. The film plays in two parts, juxtaposing the worlds of rich man and poor man, high and low, heaven and hell. Kurosawa exposes the grit of everyday life on the low side: the squelch of the train, the annoying voices of the passersby, the view of Gondo’s hillside mansion from our perpetrator’s shack-like window. Compare this to the relative silence of Gondo’s comfortable house, its usual peace interrupted only by the feverish though somehow inept police and the ringing of the phone: the squawk of the low intruding into the aerie of the high. Kurosawa masterfully blends his trademark elements together to create an intensity of development in which these two worlds inevitably collide. The deeper theme is the stratification of an emerging capitalist economy; there are those who rise and those who fall. Gondo is a shoeman who comes from a long line of shoemen. In old Edo, shoemen, tanners, and blacksmiths were of a cast known as Hisabetsu Buraku or Burakumin, the “Discriminated Communities”. Gondo, who came from this low class and jumped to the high ground, is an example of a new era of discrimination based not on race, creed or religion, but on money and the corporation. It takes someone like Gondo, who has more than likely lived in both worlds, to not allow mere money to determine the fate or honor of both men.

This is also emblematic of the rift between Kurosawa and Mifune which began a few years after the filming of this movie. Despite their success together they grew apart professionally and philosophically in a way which ominously mirrored their careers. Mifune continued to rise and gain international acclaim while Kurosawa, though he directed many more films, never again captured the magic of Rashōmon or Seven Samurai, largely due to Mifune’s absence as the Kamikaze presence Kurosawa’s often slow, maudlin screenplays required to achieve proper balance between arthouse introspection and hollywood extravaganza. They made up, but not before Mifune portrayed Yoshi Toranaga in the televised version of James Clavell’s Shōgun. High and Low indeed.