I can't say I've ever counted myself as a big fan of Akira Kurosawa's films, but I can say that, despite having never completed a healthy film study of the man's abundant works, I've heartily enjoyed Kurosawa film I've seen, the latest being a first time viewing of his 1963 thriller High and Low (Tengoku to Jikoku).
I love a film that is simultaneously heavy on the symbolism and rife with gorgeously composed frame after jaw-dropping frame of gray scale captured with every possible shade and highlight of true black and true white intact. The good people at Criterion love this sort of film too, perhaps almost as much as they love Kurosawa's handiwork (more than twenty-six of his films can be obtained as Criterion Collection issued DVDs), or perhaps almost as much as Kurosawa loved to cast internationally acclaimed film star Toshiro Mifune as his leading man (I reckon Mifune has Kurosawa to thank for his fame and good fortune). There's a lot of love in the room. But what really makes this cinematic gem sparkle and shine presently in my eyes is the fact that it took a little of the edge off of my pining for the release of the Mad Men Season Three DVD set.
High and Low is the first full-length Kurosawa film I've seen that wasn't a period piece (which also means that it was my first look at Mifune in a suit and tie instead of his de rigeur samurai threads) and I'd like to think that it offers an somewhat accurate look at an affluent family living in 1960's urban Japan. I find the overall look of the interior sets very similar to Mad Men, save for occasional signs of traditional and cultural differences that mark the setting as somewhere other than Madison Avenue, which is a reminder of how long we've all been living under the some of the same aesthetic influences. The story, however, is a clean cut one with as complicated a network of writing credits as one can get (which in all probability resembles Mad Men more than I'll ever know), what with director Kurosawa teaming up with Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni to adapt a screenplay loosley based on Hayakawa Shobo's translation of Evan Hunter's novel King's Ransom, written by Hunter under the pen name Ed McBain --- whew! I can only hope there was a lot of love in the room for all those involved!
Storywise, High and Low reads like a detective thriller and plays like film noir. Short of saying, "don't take my word for it, find out for yourself" (cheers to you, Levar Burton), High and Low stays busy with plot complications unfolding like a budding branch succumbing to rising heat all the while dazzling the eyes with a veritable smorgasbord location settings (a glorious beach, a summer home in the mountains, a garden in full blossom, a booming port-side dancehall, back alleys dripping with smack addicts, crowded police briefing rooms, a hot hospital waiting room, corridors of speeding commuter train) and stellar cinematography. All of this framing the eerie quiet of a well-feathered nest about to unravel and a man who finds himself (and his loved ones) caught in the center of a no-win shit-storm. This is a great movie.
One thing that I'd like to mention: the original title of the film, Tengoku to Jikoku, when directly translated from the Japanese reads as Heaven and Hell. However, I understand why the translator here chose to affix what appears to be a pretty-near-but-not-plum, slight mis-translation of the title in favor of more straightforward, unassuming one. I believe the reason for going with the title High and Low is suggestive of the many interpretations such a header provides for a complex film steeped in multiple struggles operating on many levels be it class-related, or altered emotional, behavioral or mental states of being. In any case, the title is a beginning in more ways than one; this movie has stayed in my thoughts for days and highs and lows keep surfacing. Maybe a Kurosawa bender is in order. Or maybe just more noir-y, Mad Men reminiscent films to further dull the longing. Maybe both.