Published in Yokohama Seasider Magazine, May 2009.

Kurosawa Akira’s High and Low (1963)

Kurosawa is perhaps best known for his period pieces set in ancient Japan, such as Rashomon and Seven Samurai. “High and Low” (lit: Heaven and Hell) is a film noir set in mid-century Yokohama. It begins with Gondo, a shrewd self-made businessman arguing in his spacious living room with his fellow executives over the direction of his National Shoes Company. He has barely finished revealing his plans to buy the company out himself when the phone rings and he finds that his son has been kidnapped. The exorbitant ransom could cast him down from his mansion on a hill and into bankruptcy.

The film is full of contrasts between rich and poor, high and low, chaos and order. The first third of the film is almost exclusively set in Gondo’s living room. The background is formed by his grand windows, arrogantly looking down upon the chaotic city below. When he opens the window, the silence of his modern chateau is invaded by the hubbub down below. The window from which Gondo imperiously looks down on the city is the same window through which Takeuchi, the kidnapper, peers from his cramped 3-tatami apartment below. Tortured by his jealousy of Gondo’s rich lifestyle, Takeuchi sought to bring Gondo down from “heaven.”

For Yokohama locals, this movie is especially interesting because it brings us to places that have very familiar names. Now, though, most of us would hardly recognize those places. Much of the film was shot on location in a Kanagawa of the past. A chase scene brings us deep down into the “hell” of noisy factories, trash pits, filthy alleys swarming with junkies, and raucous bars full of drunken sailors and gangsters making dope deals.

This film is not just a thrilling police procedural mystery, but also emotionally and morally rich. It gives us a glimpse into the Yokohama that existed before the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Shipyard was replaced with the glittering towers of Minato Mirai. Beyond the stunning direction, an exemplary performance from Toshiro Mifune also makes this film a standout classic.

天国と地獄 黒澤明