This blog’s been focussing on Hindi cinema for a while now, so I decided it was time to get back to being a bit more diverse. And this time with a film from one director whose work I admire a lot: Akira Kurosawa. If all you’ve seen of Kurosawa are his samurai films, I’d recommend Tengoku to Jigoku (High and Low) as a good way of getting introduced to the films he made in other genres. If you’ve never watched a Kurosawa, this is still one of his best films – and one of the best classic crime films I’ve seen.
Loosely based on King’s Ransom, a novel by American crime writer Ed McBain, Tengoku to Jigoku is about a kidnapping and its repercussions. The result is an unforgettable film that brilliantly combines the personal, the social, the psychological, the dramatic and the mundane, with the sheer sweat-and-drudgery of the police procedural.
The story begins in the large, smart home of Kingo Gondo (Toshirô Mifune). Gondo is one of the executive directors of a shoe company, National Shoes. He’s risen the hard way: 30 years ago, he began as a 16-year old apprentice to the ‘Old Man’, who owns National Shoes. Today, Gondo is a wealthy man, with 13% of the shares in National Shoes.
The three other directors of the company have come together at Gondo’s house to decide the future of the company. Other than Gondo and these three men, the only other individual present in the room is Gondo’s assistant, Kawanishi (Tatsuya Mihashi).
Differences of opinion surface rapidly. Gondo is the only one who believes that National Shoes should concentrate on making quality shoes. Good designs, good workmanship – and durability. The other men scoff at Gondo. They accuse him of being old-fashioned, like the Old Man (who, one of them jeeringly says, would be happiest making army boots). What National Shoes needs in order to make money are shoes that look pretty but wear out soon. What National Shoes needs is to throw the Old Man and his defunct ideas out.
But the Old Man is sitting on 25% of the company’s shares; even with the 21% the other three directors hold, they cannot dislodge the Old Man.
So, the other men have a proposition to make: if Gondo, with his 13%, joins them, they’ll hold a total of 34% of the stock – and they can oust the Old Man.
But Gondo refuses, and refuses bluntly. He will not give up his principles for wealth and power. A National Shoes controlled by a conglomerate for which profit is preferable to conscience… no, he will not be a part of that. Like the Old Man, he would rather make good shoes, ‘real shoes’, than be driven by this greed.
The scene ends with a furious Gondo throwing the three other directors out of his house.
Within the next few minutes, a lot is revealed. Gondo’s wife Reiko (Kyôko Kagawa) emerges just as the angry directors are leaving, and realises that trouble is brewing.
Then, the Gondos’ little son Jun bursts into the living room along with his playmate Shinichi. Shinichi is the son of the widowed chauffeur Aoki (Yutaka Sada). The two boys are about the same age and are the best of friends – in fact, they’ve been playing sheriff-and-outlaw this evening, and have switched ‘costumes’ a couple of times, so that even Reiko, seeing Shinichi, for a moment mistakes him for Jun.
While the boys run off, Gondo receives a phone call from Osaka. The phone call leaves him pleased and quietly triumphant; he immediately gives instructions to Kawanishi to phone and book a flight for that night itself, for Kawanishi to go to Osaka. When Kawanishi returns – he’s booked a seat on the 10 PM Tokyo-Osaka flight – Gondo reveals the ace he’s had up his sleeve all this while.
The fact is that Gondo’s share in National Shoes is not the paltry 13% everybody’s believed it to be. He has, over the past three years, acquired a further 15%. And now he’s on the brink of buying another 19% of the shares, through someone in Osaka. Gondo’s total stock in National Shoes will go up to 47% – enough for him to control the firm.
He now makes out a cheque for ¥50 million and gives it to Kawanishi, to be handed over at Osaka in exchange for the shares.
Everything is ready for Kawanishi’s departure – Aoki has been summoned and told to get the car out – when the phone rings.
… and the Gondos’ world falls apart. At the other end of the line is a man who tells Gondo that he’s kidnapped Gondo’s son, and that the child will be returned only if Gondo agrees to pay a ransom of ¥30 million.
Panic ensues, of course. Kawanishi’s first reaction is to call the police; Gondo stops him, saying that that could well get Jun killed.
Just as Gondo is getting ready to make arrangements to withdraw the ¥30 million from the bank, who should walk in but – Jun! So was it all a prank…?
But no; the very next moment, Gondo realises this is not a prank. Shinichi is missing. Shinichi, the same age and size as Jun, dressed in the clothes Jun had been wearing just a short while back. Aoki, on whom the realisation dawns simultaneously, races off into the night, yelling for his son and hoping that the boy is out there somewhere.
Gondo, meanwhile, phones the police. (“No! The kidnapper might hurt him!” Reiko cautions, but Gondo is blunt and matter-of-fact in his reassurance to her: a mere chauffeur cannot pay a ransom; the kidnapper will have to let Shinichi go).
The police team – disguised as delivery men – arrives soon after, led by Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) and Chief Detective Taguchi (Kenjiro Ishiyama). Within a short while, they’ve rigged up a system to tap and record the phone, and they’ve stationed a man to try and trace the next phone call… which they’re sure will not be long in coming.
It does, and the kidnapper’s reaction is not quite what Gondo had imagined.
Instead, though the man admits he made a mistake, he is cold-blooded enough to add that it makes no difference. So what if Aoki cannot pay Shinichi’s ransom? Gondo can. Gondo has the money to do it.
Gondo, of course, refuses outright. Why should he pay? (He has, as he later admits to Reiko, mortgaged everything they own – down to their house – in order to get those all-important shares from Osaka. If he gives those ¥30 million to Shinichi’s kidnapper, not only will he not get control of the company, he will lose everything).
This is not just a tense moment; it is a long, uncomfortable, embarrassing night for all. Aoki, the desolate father, sinks to his knees and begs Gondo to help him. “Shinichi and I will serve you till we die”, he wails.
(This, incidentally, is one of the subtly great scenes in the film. Aoki is on his knees, bent over double as he pleads with the only man who can save his child. Gondo is pacing about, almost trying to flee Aoki [and his own conscience?]. For the next couple of minutes, everybody looks away from Gondo and Aoki, the same embarrassment mirrored in all their faces. It’s an interesting snapshot of human feelings: the pleading of the terror-stricken father; the dilemma of the man he’s pleading with; the awkwardness of the others – the ‘spectators’ – in the room).
When they’re alone together, Reiko confronts Gondo and tries to be his conscience. Just a while back, he hadn’t thought twice about paying ¥30 million to bring back Jun; surely money cannot take the place of simple humanity?
When Gondo flings back at her the fact that they will be left almost penniless – he will have to begin all over again – Reiko says that they will manage. He can manage, Gondo says; but will Reiko – brought up in luxury, used to vast amounts of wealth – will she be able to survive poverty?
Gondo has obviously made up his mind to hang on to his money.
But the next morning, when the kidnapper phones with further instructions, Gondo has taken a decision. Or, rather: his conscience has taken a decision. Shinichi cannot be left to the mercy of the kidnapper. It will ruin Gondo, but he will pay up the ¥30 million.
The kidnapper gives explicit instructions. Gondo is to put the money (not in consecutive serial numbers, and in denominations that the kidnapper specifies) in two bags, each no more than 7 cm thick. He is to take the bullet train, and will receive instructions along the way.
The long and the short of it is that Gondo ends up throwing the two bags from the train, at a river where the train slows down. The bags are picked up by someone who’s standing on the riverbank with Shinichi. Shinichi is let go, and is quickly collected by Gondo and the cops who’ve been with Gondo all this while. The kidnapper – or his accomplice, they still don’t know who – gets away with the money.
Shinichi is safe. But Gondo has been ruined. (Literally, in fact: Kawanishi has already defected to the other directors, and comes to gloat over Gondo’s misfortunes and to let him know that he is now no longer a director of National Shoes).
It is at this point that Inspector Tokura, Taguchi, and the Chief of Investigation (Takashi Shimura) decide that, with no threat to the child now, they can go hell-for-leather after the kidnapper. The least they can do is get back Gondo’s money for him.
But how? The clues seem almost non-existent. The kidnapper has hidden himself too well. Who is he? Where does he live and work? What was his motive? And how can they ever set about finding him?
What follows is a very well-plotted police procedural, as Tokura and his team go out into the streets of Tokyo (and beyond) searching for anything that might point the way to the kidnapper – and somehow bring Gondo back from the brink.
What I liked about this film:
Everything. The story is excellent, the direction top notch, the acting uniformly superb (though I must admit a particular admiration for Mifune, probably my favourite Japanese actor).
What I found especially interesting was the title of the film, and its connotations in the story itself. I’ve read (since I don’t know Japanese) that tengoku to jigoku literally means ‘heaven and hell’. The ‘official’ English title – ‘High and Low’ – is more appropriate, I feel, because of the many meanings it has in relation to the story. There is Gondo’s life itself: beginning low, as a poor apprentice, and reaching a high as a director of National Shoes – and then plummeting again to a low just as he had been preparing to scale another high.
There is the ‘high’ and the ‘low’ difference, of relative wealth and status, between Gondo and Aoki. There is, even fairly early on in the film, an indication that Gondo’s house, up on a hill, is literally much higher than the shabby tenement the kidnapper inhabits. And there is, of course, the obvious difference in the status and wealth of the kidnapper and his victim (in one of his first phone conversations with Gondo, the man taunts Gondo by saying that Gondo lives in air-conditioned comfort while people like him – the kidnapper – have to live in the heat).
Tengoku to Jigoku is not just a superb crime film; it also offers a good insight into individuals. Gondo, caught in a struggle between his conscience and his natural desire to not throw away all those years of hard work. Reiko, horrified at her husband’s hard-heartedness, but speaking, all along, from the cocooned luxury she’s used to… there are shades of grey here. Not all is black, not all is white. Kurosawa even gives us a glimpse of the kidnapper’s perspective (a literal glimpse, this, towards the beginning of the film: we see, from the kidnapper’s grubby window, a view of Gondo’s house up on the hill. It was, I found, surprising effective in conveying the emotions that luxurious, far-away house, so unattainable, could evoke).
Finally, the careful details that enhance the experience. In the first scene, a cardigan-clad Gondo, in his beautifully air-conditioned house. Later in the film, a Gondo who has lost nearly all his wealth – spending his time mowing the lawn, wearing trousers and a bush shirt. Yes, his house is still there, still air-conditioned and plush, but perhaps Gondo is trying once again to get used to being a poor man?
And the cops, making their way around the most squalid parts of Tokyo, their shirts stuck to their backs with sweat, or constantly wiping their foreheads as they sit around their office and discuss the case…
The last scene, incidentally, is one of the most powerful I’ve seen.
What I didn’t like:
One scene, towards the end of the film, which is set in a nightclub. Too protracted, in my opinion. But, for a film that is nearly 2½ hours long (and manages to be nail-bitingly engrossing through it all), that’s a minor flaw.
A Note and Some Comparisons:
For those of you out there who are interested in 70s’ Hindi cinema: Tengoku to Jigoku was remade in 1977 as the Vinod Khanna-Vidya Sinha-Dr Shreeram Lagoo-Amjad Khan starrer, Inkaar. The first half of the film (barring the romance angle) is almost identical to the Japanese original. The second half goes its own way, with a more romanticised view of police work, turning the cop into the all-fighting, all-conquering hero Indian audiences were more used to. The clues change too, and there are differences in the way the story plays out. Inkaar isn’t a bad film – in fact, it’s a good, solid Bollywood crime thriller – but if you’ve seen Tengoku to Jigoku, it does fall pretty flat.