Thursday, January 19, 2012

HIGH AND LOW (Akira Kurosawa, 1963, Japan)

Japanese translation is literally Heaven and Hell.

A man is willing to sacrifice a child's life in order to secure his own future but sees his best laid plans go up in pink smoke. Akira Kurosawa dissects the morality of a self-made businessman, exposing him to a life shattering decision where success is measured against the high cost of living.

Gondo holds thirteen percent of the stock in National Shoes, but forges a plan to buy a majority share in order to keep the company from making cheap and inferior products. Gondo's hostile takeover is interrupted when a kidnapper mistakenly seizes his chauffer's little boy and holds him for ransom. Is Gondo morally and ethically bound to sacrifice his family's welfare for his servant’s? Kurosawa posits a complex question with dangerous possibilities but goes deeper into the double standard of big business and class distinction, where the criminal law decides right and wrong with little regard to Justice.

Gondo is a self-made man who worked his way from the sweatshops of National Shoes, where his skill and hubris were tools to conquer the boardrooms of this huge corporation. Ginjiro is a medical technician who lives in squalor, eclipsed by the shadow of Gondo’s mansion, his spirit poisoned by self-pity like a disease spread by the ubiquitous lice and crawling parasites (both human and insect) that inhabit his world. Kurosawa contrasts these two seemingly disparate characters and asks the viewer to cast moral judgment upon them (expecting sympathies to lie with Gondo, of course), then reveals that they are infected with the same intent, differentiated only by their actions. Hmmm, what am I getting at?

Gondo will let the boy die. There is no doubt that this is his final answer. Though his wife begs him he decides that his well planned takeover of National Shoes is more important than a human life. It’s revealed that Gondo is not all that ‘self-made” after all, that he married into a wealthy family and used the dowry as capital to form the takeover. But once he answers the final phone call, Gondo contradicts everything he previously stated and agrees to pay the ransom. Gondo’s is not a selfless sacrifice. On the contrary, he expects to recover the money and complete his mission. Is Gondo a murderer? Yes and no. His takeover will murder his competition and probably end in disgrace and seppuku for the losers, but this is well within legal and moral limits of the law. Gondo is not the one to wield the executioner’s sword, but he casts the penumbra of the grim reaper, bringing about their doom. But it’s all ok, when you swim with sharks you expect to get bitten.

Ginjiro haunts the dregs of society, born at the bottom rung of a ragged social ladder through no fault of his own, and plans to use the money to escape this hell. When he recovers the satchel full of money, he plans a hostile takeover himself. His conspirators are drug addicts and Ginjiro supplies them with pure heroine which results in their death from overdose. He doesn’t administer the deadly needle to the vein, he is only the harbinger of their doom. I suppose when you swim with sharks you should also expect to become chum. What becomes acceptable in the business world now become illegal in the criminal underworld: are these worlds of heaven and hell really that different?

Yes. Ginjiro is captured and sentenced to death while Gondo is hailed as a hero, losing his company for he sake of a child. Though this public impression is not totally true, there is little doubt Gondo welcomes the illusion. But Gondo decides to visit Ginjiro in prison, the first meeting between the two characters in the entire film. What he sees is not a reflection but a subjugation, two images that become one. Not two sides of the same coin but a rare double impression which blurs identity, now conjoined in both act and intent.

Final Grade: (A+)