Mifune Festival at Film Forum: ‘High and Low’

Toshirō Mifune in High and Low (courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

Film Forum’s four week festival screening of 33 films starring iconic Japanese actor Toshirō Mifune (1920-1997) and directed by Akira Kurosawa kicks off Friday, February 11 and ends on 30th of March at Film Forum. What is amazing about this festival is that not only are Kurosawa’s masterpieces included like Rashomon, Seven Samuri, High and Low, Yojimbo and Hidden Fortress, but also found are Kurosawa’s and Mifune’s rarities and rediscoveries in 35mm. These have been imported from the libraries of The Japan Foundation and The National Film Archive of Japan. For the entire schedule of films go to their website: https://filmforum.org/series/toshiro-mifune

Tsutomu Yamazaki in HIgh and Low (courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

A favorite film in Japan, but not that well known in the U.S., unless you are a Akira Kurosawa and Mifune fan, is High and Low. In this hybrid crime thriller and human drama, we see a different aspect of Toshirō Mifune’s acting versatility and concentration in inhabiting an uncharacteristic role, that of a modern, wealthy Japanese executive Kingo Gondo. Director Kurosawa’s layered unveiling of the strike zone of danger is a slow boil that begins with a meeting of shoe company executives that are plotting to undermine the owner of the company by pooling together their shares. By the end of the film, the company and the executives, especially Gondo are in completely different places, having gone through an unforgettable trauma that changes their lives.

Toshirō Mifune in High and Low (courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

Gondo, a creative entrepreneur, intends to outwit the other executives by buying up more shares in the company alone, than they have pooling their shares together. He refuses to go along with their manufacturing vision because they, mirroring American corporate values, intend to squeeze out greater profits by making an inferior product. His values are high-minded: make beautiful, unique and high quality shoes which have good value for their money. He argues with the executives believing that long term, the company will be better served through his vision of raising the bar and maintaining the company’s integrity.

Toshirō Mifune in High and Low (courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

The executives disagree and close him out of their deal. However, he intends to put his own plan into effect by gathering the money for a leveraged buyout to own over half the shares of the company, by mortgaging his house. At the point where he is about to send his assistant to finalize the deal, he receives a phone call from a kidnapper, who has mistakenly taken his chauffeur’s son Shinichi instead of his own son Jun. However, it is no consolation that the kidnapper wants a “king’s ransom,” for a child who is lower middle class, because the child is his son Jun’s friend.

Toshirō Mifune in High and Low (courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

Using the money to purchase the shoe company instead of paying the ransom for a helpless, frightened child is morally reprehensible. He realizes word will get out to the press that he values money over the life of a child, a position of moral bankruptcy. One way or another he will lose. Either his soul will become hardened as he places material things above a human life, or he will lose money but have saved the life of a child who is not his own son. Such grace is heroic and beautiful, even saintly. What will Gondo decide? It is a typical Kurasawa dilemma that his protagonists always have to choose between a rock and a hard place.

Tatsuya Nakadai in High and Low (courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

Initially, Gondo is not going to pay the ransom with the money he put together for the buyout. He thinks perhaps he can borrow other money from the bank to tide himself over. The plot thickens and turning points occur frequently. Despite the kidnapper telling Gondo not to call them, the police become involved. They assure him that they will help him get the money back. That, coupled with his wife and the chauffeur’s pleading as well as his own son questioning where his friend Shinichi is, persuades him not to go through with the money deal. Instead, he will give the money to the kidnapper at a specified place, following his instructions. However, first, as they tape record the kidnapper’s voice, they try to find his location as well as verify that the child has not been killed. The suspense and tension increases as the stakes lengthen and we wonder if the child will be killed.

Tsutomu Yamazaki in High and Low (courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

In the second part of the film, Kurosawa’s specificity lays out the step by step plan the police use to eventually put together the clues that lead to the identity and place of the kidnapper. On the phone, the kidnapper spills that he is sweltering down in the city ready to die of heat prostration, while he looks up at the cool, beautiful house of Gondo, high atop the cliff overlooking the city. That detail and others, like the sound of the train where the suitcase with the money is supposed to be dropped off and clues that Shinichi gives the police about the place where he was taken, gradually provide the net that the police draw around the kidnapper.

Toshirō Mifune in HIgh and Low (courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

The good news is that Shinichi is returned and the money exchange goes smoothly. However, the bad news is that the police eventually find the dead bodies of the accomplices who were keeping Shinichi in a house by the beach. Thus, the police are in a dead heat with the kidnapper, finding clues then arriving at a literal dead end. Meanwhile, as the cat and mouse game continues, Gondo loses everything, forced out of the company because his assistant told the executives of his planned double cross leveraged buyout. Gondo’s creditors demand the collateral in lieu of the debt and he is forced to auction off everything. However, his story is widely reported and he is viewed as a hero and selfless executive which raises his reputation and worthiness to the heavens, while the other executives/owners of National Shoe Company are scorned and excoriated.

HIgh and Low (courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

As the wheels of fate turn, lowering Gondo materially, yet raising him morally and strengthening his soul spiritually, the now wealthy kidnapper becomes emotionally unhinged by a stratagem the police detectives use, after they autopsy the accomplices who died of a heroin overdose. The detectives trick the kidnapper by making him think the accomplices are still alive; they give him a note demanding more ,heroin. Through this ruse and going undercover into the most crime ridden street of Yokohama, full of prostitutes and addicts, investigators locate the kidnapper who has given a prostitute a lethal dose of heroin to test it out. Threading this evidence with the kidnapper’s showing up at the accomplices’ house believing them still alive, the police arrest him and jail him with sufficient evidence. Finally, as the last stick of furniture is taken from Gondo’s house, too late, the police recover the money with only a nominal amount missing.

Thus, from wheel to woe to back again, Gondo’s character has gone through the trials and sufferings of a Job. Mifune gradually becomes more stoic by the end of the film. His character has experienced the strengthening of his faith in himself, justice, karma and superb police work. The most amazing section of the film and the acting occurs when Gondo visits the kidnapper who by this point reveals himself to be a raving lunatic.

Tsutomu Yamazaki in HIgh and Low (courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

The kidnapper, a young medical intern laughs with ridicule at Gondo until Gondo tells him he is better off as the executive of a smaller shoe company where he can use his own vision and ideas to influence the quality and worthiness of the product. He is starting over again which is fine with him. Indeed, Gondo, regardless of whether he is high or low, learns to be steady and temperate. On the other hand, the kidnapper and murderer is completely unbalanced. Unlike Gondo who can be abased or abounded in life and remain a stolid rock, the kidnapper breaks down and screams in utter lunatic rage and pain. It is a shocking and incredibly memorable scene. One of the greatest acting performances by two actors that I’ve seen in any film. Absolutely unforgettable.

This is Kurosawa at his suspenseful and profound best. From the arc of Gondo’s admirable personal development, to the uplifting of the themes of quality over commercialism, sacrifice over greed, timeless and immutable values are presented as behaviors to emulate. Contrasting the personality of the kidnapper and killer who is psychotic for money and motivated to “get rich at the expense of others,” we are reminded of another path individuals take. Kurosawa offers both up for us to choose: the light and the dark, the ethical samuri vs. the twisted, psychotic who turns inward and self-destructs. This is ultimately, “the high and the low.”

These portraits are breathtaking in another must-see Mifune/Kurosawa collaboration. Don’t miss it. For tickets and times see below, and go to the Film Forum website: https://filmforum.org/series/toshiro-mifune

High and Low at Film Forum

Saturday, February 19 at 8:00
Wednesday, March 2 at 2:30
Tuesday, March 8 at 12:40, 7:50

About caroleditosti

Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D. is an Entertainment Journalist, novelist, poet and playwright. Writing is my life. When I don't write I am desolate. Carole Di Tosti has over 1800 articles, reviews, sonnets and other online writings. Carole Di Tosti writes for Blogcritics.com, Theater Pizzazz and other New York theater websites. Carole Di Tost free-lanced for VERVE and wrote for Technorati for 2 years. Some of the articles are archived. Carole Di Tosti covers premiere film festivals in the NY area:: Tribeca FF, NYFF, DOC NYC, Hamptons IFF, NYJewish FF, Athena FF. She also covers SXSW film. Carole Di Tosti's novel 'Peregrine: The Ceremony of Power,' is being released in November-December. Her two-act plays 'Edgar,' 'The Painter on His Way to Work,' and 'Pandemics' in the process of being submitted for representation and production.

Posted on February 15, 2022, in Film Festival Screenings, Film News, Film Reviews and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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