Thursday, November 30, 2023

Flashback, November 1963: Master Filmmaker Kurosawa Caps Crime-Thriller Quartet With ‘High and Low’

International audiences had become accustomed to daringly innovative cinematography and visual storytelling by Japanese writer-director Akira Kurosawa, even when he turned to foreign influences such as the American Western (The Seven Samurai), Dostoevsky (The Idiot), Shakespeare (Throne of Blood), Gorky (The Lower Depths) and Shakespeare (Throne of Blood) for his examinations of his own country’s psychology.

But with High and Low, which premiered in the U.S. 60 years ago this month (and, incidentally, in the week following the JFK assassination), this supremely influential figure in world cinema turned to a genre that had come particularly to fascinate him: the crime thriller, in this case based on the American pulp novel King’s Ransom, by Ed McBain.

Trust me, not every adaptation of one of McBain’s 87th Precinct novels works. As evidence, I submit two 1990’s TV movies in the long-running Columbo series, “Undercover" (based on Jigsaw) and “No Time to Die” (source: So Long As You Both Shall Live), by general agreement of fans of Peter Falk’s rumpled detective the nadir of the series—and the only two stories not written originally for the show.

But Kurosawa did not merely translate the setting of McBain’s police procedural from an American metropolis to Japan. 

By confining the accomplices in the kidnapping to the margins of the story, Kurosawa (who collaborated on the screenplay with Hideo Oguni, Eijiro Hisaita, and Ryuzo Kikushima) concentrated on the relationship between the crime’s ringleader and wealthy industrialist Kingo Gondo (played by Toshiro Mifune, paired with Kurosawa for the 15th and next to last time)—one with unexpected subtleties and class tensions.

Being most familiar with Kurosawa’s samurai films and historical epics, I was surprised to see how fluidly he handled a contemporary setting. But I may have been even more astonished to learn that High and Low represented his fourth venture into Japanese film noir, following Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and The Bad Sleep Well.

The environment of this film is far removed from the agrarian world of so many earlier Kurosawa films. By this point in the 1960s, Japan was achieving levels of consumer spending and financial sophistication unimaginable before World War II.

“In Japan, the society progressed through a rapid growth, which was an unnatural process,” Kurosawa remembered. “Daily life lost its natural course. To live, it became necessary to work beyond one's abilities. That's why instability among people has increased.”

In the script that Kurosawa helped fashion from the McBain novel, that “instability” gave rise to a kidnapping, reflecting a frightening national trend of the time. (Kurosawa himself had received kidnapping threats involving his own daughter, Kazuko Kurosawa).

Gondo, a hard-charging footwear tycoon, not only faces a blackmail demand that could bankrupt him—just when he needs the money to fend off an internal coup—but won’t even be paying for his own family member, as the kidnapper has mistakenly snatched the son of Gondo’s chauffeur.

The planned ransom exchange on a bullet train is one of Kurosawa’s most exciting sequences, brisk with motion. But scenes set in Gondo’s home, though stationary, work equally well, as Kurosawa focuses on the tension engulfing Mifune, a normally forceful actor here required to register his emotions with greater restraint.

Over the years, I had come to admire such Kurosawa gems as Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, and, of course, The Seven Samurai. But I was pleasantly surprised by his change of pace in High and Low

It was the highest-grossing film in Japan in the year of its release, and with its powerful energy and deep moral seriousness, it also happens to be an uncommonly thoughtful thriller. 

No comments: