Monday, July 21, 2014

Survival of the Vicious

One of the well known problems with capitalism is the wedge it drives between the rich and the poor, the ugly contrast between the comfortable lives of the few rich and the often humiliating lifestyles of the poor, disdain imposed on their modes of living by a society that values conspicuous wealth. Akira Kurosawa frequently used his films to discuss this issue, one of the most vivid examples being his 1963 film High and Low (天国と地獄, Heaven and Hell). The film is also about a murder and a kidnapping and while the killer is an example of the embittered poor, Kurosawa does not advocate with the film the actions the killer takes in response to the injustices of capitalism. Nonetheless, this brilliant film is a powerful argument about the largely destructive effects of capitalism.

I hadn't seen High and Low in more than ten years before I bought the blu-ray a couple weeks ago. One of the reasons I picked it up to replace my old DVD is that it features commentary by Stephen Prince who generally provides excellent commentaries for Kurosawa movies but this one turned out to be particularly informative, much more so than his commentary for the recent release of The Hidden Fortress. He discusses how the bizarrely lenient laws regarding the punishment of kidnappers portrayed in the film were in fact the real laws currently in place at the time of the film. When it's discovered that the kidnapper accidentally kidnapped the son of wealthy executive Kingo Gondo's chauffeur instead of Gondo's own child, the worst he can expect if he's caught is a prison sentence of five years.

The film's divided into two parts, the first focusing on "Heaven" and the second on "Hell". Most of the first segment takes place in Gondo's home and feels like a stage play--as Prince notes in the commentary, the whole sequence was played out and filmed in real time with two cameras, the footage from which Kurosawa later edited together. The performances this draws from the actors, together with Kurosawa's ingenious blocking, are truly remarkable. The movie's thematic conflict is set up through contrasts between Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) and his chauffeur, Aoki (Yutaka Sada).

Even though it'd been established some time earlier that it was Aoki's son who was kidnapped, when the police arrive led by Detective Tokura (a cool and relaxed Tatsuya Nakadai), they speak almost exclusively to Gondo while Aoki can be seen standing pathetically in the background holding his son's sweater.

It's the chauffeur's very meekness that so unnerves the powerful Gondo who, in a fascinating moment, paces vigorously against the curtains when Aoki finally begs him to pay the ransom. But Gondo had been in the middle of a delicate manoeuvre to buy out shares in his shoe company and he'd leveraged everything, including his home, on doing so. So, he's driven against the wall to argue, is it his responsibility to save a child's life at the cost of his livelihood? The tension here perfectly lays bare the fundamental, cruel conceit of capitalism.

My favourite exchange, though, from this opening scene of great exchanges is between Gondo and his right hand man in business, Kawanishi (Tatsuya Mihashi) who at first supports his boss's refusal to pay the ransom. He's eager to take a flight to Kyoto in order to deliver the check that will secure Gondo's takeover. However, the next morning Kawanishi suddenly sides with Gondo's wife, Reiko (Kyoko Kagawa), who had been pleading with her husband to pay the ransom. Kawanishi raises several good points, including the fact that Reiko's dowry was in large part the foundation of Gondo's fortune so she ought to have a say in the matter. But Gondo smells a rat and confronts Kawanishi about his change of heart and Kawanishi admits to being swayed by the other executives. He says he lost faith in Gondo when Gondo even considered paying the ransom, demonstrating he lacked a respectable killer's instinct. The fact that Kawanishi had actually formulated real, valid arguments for a point of view opposite his I thought was a brilliant display of psychopathic capitalism.

"First you must learn to smile as you kill if you want to be like the folks on the hill," as John Lennon wrote in "Working Class Hero". In fact, Gondo does live on a hill, in full view of the squalid apartment where the kidnapper lives, as we learn in the second half of the film.

Toshiro Mifune, Kurosawa's long time leading man, largely disappears from this more cinematic segment where the lead is shared between an effectively cold and agitated Tsutomu Yamazaki as the kidnapper and Tatsuya Nakadai who heads a large team of police detectives. The methods of finding clues and tracking down the kidnapper are covered in exhaustive detail, Kurosawa fascinated by the police procedural, one of the things that recalls his earlier film Stray Dog.

But while one of the detectives observes the kidnapper was right in describing Gondo's home as an obnoxious sight, the film doesn't seek to empathise with the criminal in the way Kurosawa did with Stray Dog. As we watch the kidnapper roam "Hell", from a crowded dance hall to a heroin den, he wears large, reflective glasses as though to suggest he's been so twisted up, consumed by his resentment of the world around him he barely has a personality of his own anymore.

Twitter Sonnet #648

Gangly distortions dilate the pale crust.
Slashes of fern shadows drizzle the moon.
A trombone phoenix emerged from the rust.
Frozen bells herald an orange desert boon.
Background iguana hunger chills the shot.
Spiralling moon eyes'll clink on the glass.
Cream doughnut valleys isolate the dot.
The orange forest people arrange the grass.
Statues of giant noses never blink.
Stalwart wizard plastic farmers may melt.
Broken stoppers do no duty to sink.
Computer hunters take the tower pelt.
Black tree lined mountains bulge with fake water.
Whale ribs fade above the eyelid's daughter.

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