HIGH AND LOW (TENGOKU TO JIGOKU) (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)
333 East 47th St. at First Ave.
Friday, October 18, $12, 7:00
Series runs monthly through February
On the verge of being forced out of the company he has dedicated his life to, National Shoes executive Kingo Gondo’s (Toshirō Mifune) life is thrown into further disarray when kidnappers claim to have taken his son, Jun (Toshio Egi), and are demanding a huge ransom for his safe return. But when Gondo discovers that they have mistakenly grabbed Shinichi (Masahiko Shimazu), the son of his chauffeur, Aoki (Yutaka Sada), he at first refuses to pay. But at the insistence of his wife (Kyogo Kagawa), the begging of Aoki, and the advice of police inspector Taguchi (Kenjiro Ishiyama), he reconsiders his decision, setting in motion a riveting police procedural that is filled with tense emotion. Loosely based on Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novel King’s Ransom, Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low is divided into two primary sections: the first half takes place in Gondo’s luxury home, orchestrated like a stage play as the characters are developed and the plan takes hold. The second part of the film follows the police, under the leadership of Chief Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), as they hit the streets of the seedier side of Yokohama in search of the kidnappers. Known in Japan as Tengoku to Jigoku, which translates as Heaven and Hell, High and Low is an expert noir, a subtle masterpiece that tackles numerous socioeconomic and cultural issues as Gondo weighs the fate of his business against the fate of a small child; it all manages to feel as fresh and relevant today as it probably did back in the ’60s.
High and Low is screening on October 18 at 7:00 at Japan Society, kicking off the first section of the monthly tribute series “Richie’s Fantastic Five: Kurosawa, Mizoguchi, Ozu, Yanagimachi & Kore-eda,” which honors Ohio-born writer, critic, scholar, curator, and filmmaker Donald Richie, who died in February at the age of eighty-eight. Richie was a tireless champion of Japanese culture and, particularly, cinema, and the series features six works by five of his favorite directors. Richie called High and Low, which will be introduced by series curator Kyoko Hirano and followed by a reception, “a morality play in the form of an exciting thriller. A self-made man (Mifune) is ruined by a jealous nobody ([Tsutomu] Yamazaki in his first important screen role) but goes on to do the right thing and in the end the camera observes more similarities than differences between the two. With a memorable mid-film climax on a high-speed bullet-train.” The series continues in November with Kenji Mizoguchi’s The Life of Oharu, in December with Yasujiro Ozu’s Late Autumn (screening on Ozu’s birthday, which will also mark the fiftieth anniversary of his death), in January with Mitsuo Yanagimachi’s Himatsuri, and in February with Hirokazu Kore-eda’s After Life, appropriately on the one-year anniversary of Richie’s passing. “Thanks to Richie,” Hirano explained in a statement about the festival, “the world knows the greatness of Japanese cinema.”