Kurosawa DVDs from the BFI

The 'Bear delights in some new, lesser known works from Kurosawa.

By James Rogan

The BFI are expanding their already impressive collection of kurosawa films available on DVD by releasing two of his lesser known works, I Live In Fear and High and Low.

The better of the two is High and Low, a kidnapping story with a sharp moral edge. Set in the sweltering inferno of midsummer Yokohama, it centres on the agonising choice faced by wealthy industrialist Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune). A kidnapper aiming to snatch Gondo’s son takes his chauffeur’s boy by mistake – but still demands the ransom. Gondo, engaged in a precarious scheme to seize control of the shoe company he works for, faces ruin if he pays up.

The first half of the film is the 'high' (or 'heaven' in the Japanese title) is set solely in gondo’s air-conditioned villa, perched ostentatiously above the town. The second half deals with the 'low' as the action descends into the inferno and follows the police investigation as it gradually closes the net around the kidnapper.

The clever premise opens up into a gripping thriller, which exposes the fundamental inequalities of Japanese society. Kurosawa shows how each of the protagonists (Gondo, the kidnapper and the police) responds to the social hierarchy with a casual brutality and disregard for human life. Within this grim framework, where heavens quickly become hell, Kurosawa never loses sight of the humanity of his characters. There is an overwhelming sense of pity for both Gondo and the kidnapper, each one trapped in their own meaningless struggle. When Gondo barks down the phone that the situation is absurd, the kidnapper coolly replies, “exactly, it’s absurd”.

The film also deftly highlights the inherent corruption of capitalism. A proud and ruthless businessman, Gondo is furious that he should be responsible for his employee’s child. His whole life has been dedicated to amassing wealth and power for himself and his family, suddenly he is shown in stark contrast that one life is worth more than all his work. A series of explosions controlled in human form, Mifune brings a volcanic intensity to Gondo’s dilemma. Even his inevitable reformation is surprising and unsentimental. But Kurosawa makes it clear that Gondo’s humanity can only be weakness in the world of business.

The second half of the film suffers from the marginalisation of mifune and laborious attention to the detail of the investigation (now commonplace because of television police shows). Kurosawa compensates with two brilliantly realised sequences: the ransom handover on a high-speed train and the methodical pursuit of the kidnapper through the heroin underworld of Yokohama. Kurosawa is capable of rivalling Hitchcock in creating suspense, but his real genius is in depicting human relations under intense pressure.  

Made in 1955, I Live In Fear is a product of the Cold War paranoia that produced a wave of creature features from Godzilla in Japan to Them! in America. Instead of fire-breathing dragons and mutant ants, Kurosawa gives us the inflammable Toshiro Mifune (unconvincingly made-up to be seventy) as wealthy old foundry owner and patriarch Kiichi Nakajima, who is plagued by a pathological fear of nuclear holocaust. With Hiroshima and Nagasaki still a recent memory and the us tests at Bikini Atoll being detonated, it seemed, just over the horizon, Kiichi personifies the sense of vulnerability felt by the Japanese at the time. As one character warns him, “Japan is a trough into which all radiation flows”.

The film begins with a series of shots depicting packed pedestrians inching along dusty, airless streets accompanied by an eerie score, the suggestion is immediate: these poor mortals do not know what fate has in store for them. Kiichi, on the other hand, is all too sure what will happen and is sinking his fortune into various schemes designed to protect the members of his family from imminent destruction – yet they would rather hang on to their inheritance, and so try to have Kiichi declared mentally incompetent in a family court where earnest dentist Dr Harada (Takashi Shimura) works as a mediator.

Post-Cold War, the paranoia that drives Kiichi is not as compelling as it would have been. But the nuclear backdrop is just the hook on which Kurosawa hangs his story of a family coming apart under the force of patriarchal despotism. Kiichi is a King Lear figure, furious that his children will not unquestioningly obey him. They are squabbling ingrates, a generation to whom money has become more valuable than kinship. As the family relations play off against each other, the film bears increasing similarities to Ozu’s Tokyo Story, only in Kurosawa’s vision there are no redeeming characters. It is a savage portrayal of a self-centred, emotionally bankrupt society on the edge of disaster. Hardly surprising then that contemporary Japanese audiences did not care to gaze into this particular mirror, giving Kurosawa the biggest flop of his career.

Neither film offers an obvious starting point for a Kurosawa collection: Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Rashomon are all more accomplished. they are nevertheless a must-see for the already initiated. Kurosawa must be ranked alongside ford and hawks as one of the greatest storytellers on film. While Ford can be heavy-handed and Hawks can be inconsequential, Kurosawa compliments his instinct for tragedy with a lightness of touch that continues to make his films a sheer delight.
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