Thursday, August 7, 2008

High and Low (1963)

I discovered Japanese cinema when I worked at The Video Shop in Dryden, NY the same year I began college in the early 90’s. Late one night, when two customers were fighting over a VHS copy of Curly Sue, I noticed people were never coming to blows over Cinema Paradiso or Babette's Feast in the foreign film section. That’s when the colorful cover of Ran directed by Akira Kurosawa jumped out at me, and I borrowed the tape.

A brilliant film, Ran, based on the Shakespearean tragedy King Lear, was Kurosawa’s last epic. I continued to seek out more of his work, learning he had also adapted Macbeth into the movie Throne of Blood, but perhaps what I found most surprising was that some of my favorite movies as a kid were based on Kurosawa films: The Hidden Fortress (Star Wars), The Seven Samurai (The Magnificent Seven), and Yojimbo (A Fistful of Dollars).

Interestingly, the man who inspired so many western remakes was himself influenced by Hollywood noir:
Kurosawa stated that a major source for the plot [Yojimbo] was the film noir classic The Glass Key (1942), an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett's 1931 novel. In particular, the scene where the hero is captured by the villains and tortured before he escapes is copied almost shot for shot from The Glass Key. [Source: Wikipedia]

High And Low, like Yojimbo, also got its inspiration in western hardboiled, loosely based on King's Ransom, an 87th Precinct novel by Ed McBain. In High, Toshiro Mifune plays a wealthy businessman, Kingo Gondo, faced with paying an outrageous ransom when his chauffeur’s child is mistakenly kidnapped instead of his son. The kidnappers learn of the mistake, nevertheless, they still demand the hefty payment which will bankrupt Gondo.

When Gondo initially believes the kidnappers have his son, he is willing to pay any amount to get him back, but, when he realizes the mistake, he begins to recant. Grappling with the choice, Gondo knows that paying up will ruin him financially and refusing to pay will destroy him spiritually. His wife reminds him, “Success isn’t worth losing your humanity.”

The film from beginning to end is gripping with the first part taking place almost entirely in one room. The middle is weighed down with police procedure but then a plunge into Tokyo’s underworld is electrifying and the film builds to a thrilling climax as they set a trap for the main kidnapper.

The Criterion Collections always add great bonuses and this dvd is no exception. It includes a rare Mifune interview from 1981 and a contemporary interview with the actor who played the kidnapper. The movie's US and Japanese trailers are included plus "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create".

If you’ve never seen a Kurosawa film, this is a good place to begin. I also recommend Rashomon, The Seven Samurai, and Throne of Blood. Kurosawa, who mixed Eastern and Western techniques, was a Picasso of directors, a true stylist of the medium. You will not be disappointed


Clare2e said...

I'm a Kurosawa fan, too. you remind me I'm about due to rewatch the Criterion DVD of Seven Samurai!

David Cranmer said...

Clare, Kurosawa is incredible and I'd hate to have to pick his best film... he easily has ten titles that fit the category. And the Criterion collections are tops!