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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:

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:

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

Mifune Festival at Film Forum: ‘I Live in Fear’ Screens Friday 11th, and February 18th, 19th

Toshirō Mifune and Takashi Shimura in I Live in Fear (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:

Toshirō Mifune in I Live in Fear (courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

Unless you go to Japan, or Martin Scorsese and film restoration foundations secure and restore them, you will not be able to see these rare rediscoveries in the Kurosawa/Mifune lexicon. Over the years these films have been given short shrift, occluded by the others that achieved legendary status because they were presented at the right time and place. Nevertheless, the rare ones must be examined and appreciated, not only for their subject matter, but for the earliest performances of Mifune and acute direction of Kurasawa, who also wrote the original screenplays that reveal another view of Japan after WWII. Looking closely, you will find that Mifune was always focused on inhabiting his characters, even before that was completely understood in the cinematic world globally as it is today.

After working in the Aviation Division in the Aerial photography unit during World War II, Mifune arrived at Toho Studios in 1947. He was searching for a photographer’s assistant job since he had worked in his father’s photography shop before the war. Young contract director Akira Kurosaws identified Mifune’s uniqueness and striking features. It takes talent to see the possibilities in others. Kurosawa’s talent lay in recognizing opportunity when Mifune came on the studio lot. Years later, Kurosaw admitted that without Mifune, he would have had no great films. Their artistic teamwork and collaboration produced a phenomenal raft of Japanese cinematic work that has landed on list after list of world cinema greats.

I Live in Fear cast, Toshirō Mifune right corner (courtesy of the criterion Collection)

I Live in Fear (Record of a Living Being) Screening at Film Forum

Friday, February 11 at 12:40, 4:55, 9:10
Friday, February 18 at 12:30
Saturday, February 19 at 2:50

I Live in Fear (Record of a Living Being) is one Kurasawa’s and Mifune’s overlooked films. Mifune (35) in the challenging role of a 70-year old foundry owner is taken to court by his wife and family to determine his mental competence as patriarchal fiduciary in control of his sizable fortune and company operations. Alarmed by the the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the radiation threats with 200 bomb tests in the Pacific Ocean and elsewhere, Kiichi Nakajima increasingly is obsessed with the safety of his family (even his mistresses and children) who he intends to move to Brazil, away from the trade winds blowing the clouds of radiation to Japan’s shores, and possibilities of future H-bomb explosions in their backyard. The family, especially the sons, refuse to leave, despite their father’s authority and leadership success. They assert their standing by obviating their father’s wishes and fears, rendering him a mentally infirm nullity. They insist upon the convenience of their fine lives at home in Japan, rather than to adjust to an uncertain environment without friends or familiar resources in Brazil.

The framework of the film is from the perspective of appointed Domestic Court Counselor Dr. Harada (the excellent Takashi Shimura) who takes time off from his dental practice to arbitrate the suit Nakajima’s wife takes up against her husband. The wife is in turmoil, torn between overthrowing Japanese cultural mores and obeying her sons, or standing with her husband against her children’s petition to take fiduciary authority. Nakajima, indulging his obsession about radiation, has been damaged by the devastation of the bombs dropped in Japan and even reveals PTSD (a prescient observation by Kurosawa) by recoiling to flashes of lightning during a thunder storm. His family uses his fears to justify the declaration of incompetence and senility. In a thoughtful, meditative performance by Takashi Shimura, the dentist considers all sides and acknowledges that all Japanese fear the bomb and radiation for good reason. Nakajima’s panic and obsession is more rational than his grasping family would credit him for.

Takashi Shimura in I Live in Fear (courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

Kurosawa draws the conundrums and human struggle with empathy and richness, revealing that all players have their own agendas, though there is logic and reason for their manipulations. Nevertheless, the father, who indulges his fears goes a step too far; he effects an event, that in his mind will hasten along the move to Brazil, but works the opposite result. Kurosawa reveals the overarching irony that the fear of destruction, too, is a kind of destruction that harms its fearful creator/perpetrator. This is a Shakespearean trope and the film, if seen through the lens of Dr. Harada, truly rises to mythic levels. Consider Japan as the test case, the bombing ground zero of a Christian Church; it is the sacrificial lamb to reveal the results of nuclear disaster in 1945 and possibly forever. This is especially so since weapons of mass destruction have yet to be eliminated so they do no harm anywhere on this planet. We just don’t think about it, nor does Nakajima’s family. Ironically, as a symbolic “crazy” Everyman, that is all that Nakajima thinks about.

Mifune’s performance is authentic and tragic as the shuffling patriarch whose vision is repudiated and vacated because it requires the sacrifice of the familiar and comfortable. That they cannot achieve a compromise, that the family appear to be grasping and cruel is one vital element of this most noxious of all family struggles about who controls the inheritance. And pitted against the sons’ selfish avarice is Nakajima’s obsessive, insistence that the radiation and the dropping of another H Bomb and nuclear proliferation will annihilate them unless they mitigate against it by moving away (South America has yet to establish nuclear facilities, so Kurasawa reveals his character’s judgment wasn’t unsound.)

I Live in Fear (courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

Kurosawa once again presents the untenable and impossible situation where there are no winners, no heroes, only fools and philosophers, who watch the deaf, dumb and blind act like chaotic rats in a cage. Interestingly, this is not history back in the Samuri days. But the Japanese in homely family terms are mundane 20th century Samuri, fighting threats beyond their control, that the governmental leaders themselves have allowed to proliferate to dangerous global levels, caught in power games, knowing full well what a nuclear disaster means. That is the theme and subject matter conveyed by the extraordinary performance of Mifune, who becomes the symbol for human awareness under oppression, considered demented and feeble, though he is the lone, ignored voice in the midst of his family’s oblivion. Either he is a fool or he is acutely sentient, despite the hopeless situation he faces alone to confront the danger for life on this planet with the only rational action being to flee.

Avoiding/protesting against this proliferation of imminent destruction (certainly the effects of radiation in the cancer rates) deemed an insanity or an obsession of the incompetent, is monstrous. Yet, Kurosawa through his actors’ performances, and the way he presents Nakajima’s terror of a fact that the Japanese lived and suffered with is made more real as his family discounts it and him as nuts. The conundrum of either attempting to confront apocalyptic destruction or pretending it doesn’t exist and living one’s life without reflection, becomes more than a philosophical question in this brilliant, layered film which can be appreciated at its most human levels. At once it is about a family taking the reins of authority and control of the money, somewhat heartlessly because they have a great reason to. On the other hand, their justification for their greed is as senseless and heartless as one of the son’s explanations that we all have to die sometime; don’t sweat the bomb and the radiation that is killing you slowly. Don’t sweat the possibility of a few more Chernobyls or Three Mile Islands? Indeed.

Toshirō Mifune in I Live in Fear (courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

The ending of the film is certainly a gem. This is a spoiler alert. Against his better judgment, Dr. Harada declares Nakajima febrile and demented. After Nakajima admits to criminal measures, after he has been ignored, lost his money, power, authority, family, he still clings to the idea that Japan (indeed symbolizing the planet) is in danger of annihilation. He is placed in an institution where his daughter says that finally he will be safe. She localizes danger only to her father’s mind. In her kind words, she epitomizes the extent of the family’s blindness and deafness.

Of course, Nakajima is not safe anywhere. And he is more tormented than ever. As he looks out the window at the sun, he proclaims that the earth is burning: the effects of a bomb drop or radiation. Or as Kurosawa leaves it up to the viewer, maybe the guy is just uber confused. In the final symbolic shot, the screen perfectly split by a stairway in the asylum, Nakajima’s daughter with a baby on her back walks up and Dr. Harada moves down the stairs. The profound Dr. Harada stops in thought. And, attempting to divine his thoughts, perhaps we remember one of the psychologist’s statements about Mifune’s poignant, desperate Nakajima: “Is he crazy or are those who are unperturbed in an insane world the crazy ones?” Then Harada continues and only the sound of his steps echoes after him, leaving us with this metaphoric film that is even more current for today with the shot of the sun and Mifune’s cries of “burning,” referring to radiation proliferation, nuclear warfare and more trenchant global warming which Kurosawa couldn’t have foreseen unless he was uncanny.

Toshirō Mifune, I Live in Fear (courtesy of the Criterion Collection)

Kurosaw’s original works are his most personal and vital. His characterization of the foundry owner through casting Mifune is brilliant. Who better than a vital, energetic, powerful, younger actor to contain that vibrance and compact it into the habitation of a much older body. And then to create the dynamism of the elite Nakajima who has lived a full privileged life, only to see its possibilities smashed by a terrifying uncontrollable chain reaction of explosions with the power to disintegrate all life? Mifune delivers the intensity of that understanding in his manifested physical panic and especially in the last statements he makes about burning.

In Record of a Living Being (I live in Fear) Mifune and Kurosawa have outdone themselves, not with flashy action, but with understatement and symbol. Kurosaw boldly affirms nothing can keep us safe, not the government, not the institutions that once conveyed us from birth to death. They can’t when science and industry (or digital technology) have taken us on a trajectory that is little understood until it is too late, and then, the effects are ignored. For tickets to see this must-see film, go to:

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