How can you think about profits when lives are at stake? Or, how can you think about one life when the fates of a family and a whole career are at stake? One of the reasons 1963's High and Low ("Heaven and Hell") is one of Akira Kurosawa's greatest films is that it doesn't pretend there's an easy answer to this question. It's very easy for political arguments to become polarised and that's why most political films tend to become propaganda in effect even if not in intent. Rian Johnson likely didn't think he was presenting a simplistic argument with Knives Out but by presenting its representative of the emerging majority demographic as so saintly she pukes when trying to tell a lie he betrays the fact that he's afraid of allowing the barest sliver of a flaw to enter his argument. It's a very common instinct--push aside all those untidy parts of our arguments, which we figure don't really matter in the great cause of finding the Truth, to be addressed at some obscure, later, safe date. But doing so inevitably weakens an argument because it has the effect of making an opponent feel their intelligence has been insulted or making them think their adversary has something to hide. High and Low never takes the easy route. We see the successful capitalist bedevilled by the working class mischief maker but it's neither a story of the cruel profit monger or the irresponsible anarchist. It catches the real life point in the middle where everyone's afraid to go, the point where we have to acknowledge we really don't know how to make this a fair and just world.
Kingu (Toshiro Mifune) is one of the executives at National Shoes. He wants to make high quality shoes and believes it will ultimately mean better profits but the other shareholders don't agree. They want to make cheap shoes that will turn more profit in the short term. Kingu takes a gamble and borrows money on everything he owns in order to buy out his partners. This should lead to a glorious triumph, the way capitalism is supposed to work--out of his own efforts and sacrifice, Kingu would make money providing people with the best possible product. But a spanner is thrown in the works when a discontented young man, envious of Kingu's house on the hill, kidnaps the little boy of Kingu's chauffeur, intending to kidnap Kingu's son.
Paying the ransom would mean losing everything Kingu owns. Kurosawa's blocking and Mifune's performance establish wonderful tension in the early scenes--Kingu had had to put aside any fears and doubts in order to make his sacrifice. Now he's asked to consider feelings instead of his goal. He paces around, facing the curtains, his posture firm but his inability to look at anyone conveys his shame and uncertainty. His wife (Kyoko Kagawa) pleads with him to pay the ransom, saying she won't mind living poor but he tells her she can't even imagine it, she's been rich all her life. And we learn that Kingu's isn't the story of a man who worked his way up from the bottom but of a man who owes his initial fortune to his wife. But does that make his ideals any less worthy?
In the end he relents and decides to pay the ransom. A great scene on a train follows, where Kingu has to throw the briefcase full of money out the window. Much of the film's latter two thirds centres on the police, lead by an inspector played by Tatsuya Nakadai. The other cops become a sort of moral compass chorus. They're all working class themselves and are a good reflection of average sympathy. One of them even agrees with the kidnapper that Kingu's air conditioned house, alone on a hill above rows of slums, is kind of obnoxious. Yet Kingu wins their respect for the hardships he's willing to endure and the contributions he makes to the investigation--the same kinds of things that are supposed to earn one a livelihood in a for-profit economy. It's the kidnapper, breaking the social contract, who has imposed his will on others unfairly, even if he thinks he just wants to bring Kingu down to his level.
A final scene where Kingu and the kidnapper (Tsutomu Yamazaki) confront one another is captivating for Kingu's grace and humility and the kidnapper's breakdown. The kidnapper's weakness, in the end, provides a more haunting argument than anything he intended to do. But is that all humanity is?
High and Low is available on The Criterion Channel.
Twitter Sonnet #1345
The giants came to build for promised fruit.
The dwarves constructed jewels for worldly might.
So oft are deals arranged with fire moot.
So well a single eye can serve for sight.
Beneath the golden skin's a loveless ring.
For apples rare the lives of gods are weighed.
Beneath the river playful maidens sing.
For spirits rare were walls of heaven made.
A balanced ransom asks the Earth and sky.
Descending gods return with wanted gold.
In river's bed the metal's not to lie.
With summoned storm the story's fully told.
To flame the broker turns at end of day.
The deals he wrought forever forge the way.