Scratch an American movie hero, and you’re likely to find a gunslinger somewhere below the surface. The American heroic ideal derives from a romanticized version of the Old West where, in the movie-friendly version of history, rugged individuals survived based on their personal skills and toughness. Films from The Thief Of Bagdad to High Noon to Speed to Taken have reveled in this idea of the independent hero who fights battles on his own, whether due to morals, circumstances, or just personal inclination. But the Japanese heroic ideal, and the societal imperatives that shaped it, are more complicated. Akira Kurosawa’s High And Low is a perfect study of how they work, in Japanese society and in its popular culture.
While Kurosawa and his co-writers (Hideo Oguni, Ryûzô Kikushima, and Eijirô Hisaita, all frequent Kurosawa collaborators) derived High And Low from the plot outline of an American novel—Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom—their version of the story is heavily weighted in Japanese social values and class issues. The film opens with a shoe-company executive, Kingo Gondo (Kurosawa’s favorite leading man, Toshirô Mifune), confronting other executives who are planning to take over the company from the unnamed “Old Man” who owns it. First and foremost, they want to make cheap shoes with a higher profit margin—both because shoddy materials cost less, and because shoddily made shoes will fall apart faster, so customers will have to replace them more often. But Gondo has made his own plans, mortgaging himself to the hilt to take over the company himself, and invest in the kind of quality shoes that make for satisfied, loyal customers. If his risky plan fails, he’ll be ruined financially, and the enemies he’s made in revealing his hand will drive him out of the company he loves.
In the middle of all this, he discovers his young son has been kidnapped, and the man who’s taken him wants a back-breaking ransom that will ruin Gondo. Still, his instant reaction is that of course he’ll pay to save his son. Almost immediately, though, he learns that the kidnapper accidentally grabbed the wrong boy—the child of Gondo’s chauffeur, Aoki. But the kidnapper is unwilling to compromise; Gondo still has to pay, he says, or Aoki’s son will die. And then the dilemma unfolds. If Gondo pays, he’ll lose his takeover bid, and with it, his beloved job, his wealth, his home, and his future. If he doesn’t, a child may die—a child he would have no responsibility for, except to the degree that the kidnapper has made this his problem.
In an American film, Gondo’s responsibility to shut down his enemies and make them pay would be clear: Movies from The Searchers to Ransom to Spartan to Captain Phillips show how Americans deal with the sensation of being bullied by kidnappers. But Japanese stories are less likely to revolve around heroes taking matters directly into their own hands, and more likely to explore the complicated balance between personal desire and community obligation. Two conflicts come up over and over in Japanese storytelling: The clash between giri (duty) and ninjo (emotion), and between honne (personal desire) and tatemae (public face). High And Low catches Gondo in a place where both conflicts come into play.
Giri is a particularly deep-seated Japanese cultural concept with a wide variety of meanings: obedience owed to a higher-up, like a feudal lord or a respected boss; responsibility to the community; the need to pay back express or implied debts; obligation to parents and ancestors. In High And Low, Gondo has his duty to the community: As a wealthy, successful man, he alone has the financial power to save a boy’s life, at ruinous cost to himself. He also has his duty to his faithful chauffeur, and to his own morals, complicated by the fact that he quickly agreed to pay the ransom for his own son; if he’d balked at that ransom, it would have been clear that he felt dealing with the kidnapper wouldn’t save his son’s life, or was morally infeasible, or simply wasn’t the most rational course of action. But by agreeing to pay for his son, he admitted his willingness to make the sacrifice as a selfish act; from that point on, the only way to refuse to pay the ransom for the chauffeur’s child is to admit that he values money more than the boy’s life.
Gondo knows how to interpret his giri, but he balks because of ninjo, his emotional response, which resents being robbed, cornered, and ruined. And honne, his personal desire, says that all this is someone else’s problem, and that he should look after his business, his family, his company, and his customers. He has his duty to all them as well, and he tries, over the course of the movie’s first third, to balance those duties against his duty to Aoki’s son. There’s a reason Gondo gets progressively more agitated and sweaty throughout the first act of the film, beyond the sweltering heat and the tension over what will happen next; he’s caught in an intolerable bind between what he knows he has to do and his most personal desires. Complicating the matter considerably: His wife, the chauffeur, and the respectful police all feel he should give in to the kidnappers. They represent the community, the social pressure to think and act as part of a self-aware collective first, and put his own needs second. When Gondo runs to the shower and furiously scrubs himself, it’s as though he’s trying to wash away the imprint of all those accusing eyes, telling him to give up his personal desires in favor of tatemae—the proper, polite, friendly social mask that indicates a good Japanese citizen, willing to go along with decisions made for the good of the crowd. Later, when he pays off the kidnapper and saves the boy, he immediately turns and frantically splashes water on his face, as if he can scrub off the irrevocable decision he just made, and the unwanted, antisocial emotions it raises.
The giri/ninjo and honne/tatemae divides run as deeply in Japanese entertainment and social culture as the lone-hero myth in America. Given Kurosawa’s fascination with historical epics, he inevitably touched on these issues in a variety of ways throughout his career; it’s almost impossible to tell stories about samurai without touching on giri. (Stories about ronin—samurai who have lost their masters—are often about giri as well, since the lack of a lord leaves them in narrative-friendly conflict, trying to rediscover a new form of the duty that defines a samurai’s life.) Possibly one of the reasons Kurosawa worked with Mifune so often is because of Mifune’s talent at playing out this conflict: as a selfish, deceptive, disreputable samurai who finds his honor in duty to a community and his fellow warriors in Seven Samurai, for instance, or as the swaggering, smug, seemingly profit-driven ronin who helps others at significant cost to himself in Yojimbo and Sanjuro.
The giri/ninjo and honne/tatemae themes aren’t limited to historical epics, or to stories about self-sacrifice, either: The put-upon bureaucrat in Kurosawa’s Ikiru finds great satisfaction in individuality and fighting the system in order to produce one great work before his death—but it’s notable that even in fighting his own bureaucratic community and earning his contemporaries’ contempt and rebuke, he’s still helping the larger community, and his very Japanese form of individuality still comes in fighting to sacrifice himself for the greater good. Films like Ran serve more as cautionary tales, showing the chaos that results when powerful leaders abandon their duty to their people, and let personal desires and emotions rule their actions.
In High And Low, Kurosawa is deeply concerned with Gondo’s decision to prioritize someone else’s welfare over his own. But once he makes that choice, his relevance as a character is all but done, and the story largely drops him. Gondo reappears briefly at a few points throughout the film, so the audience can find out, almost as an afterthought, that choosing to pay the ransom and save the boy did wreck him financially; his takeover bid failed, and he was fired. Subsequently, he’s taken up with a small shoe company where the owner gives him free rein over the product. He’s no longer wealthy—his house and belongings have been repossessed, and he comes across as cowed and quiet, compared with the blustering, angry man of the first act—but the storm has blown over, and he’s survived the experience.
But where in American films, heroic virtue usually earns the hero a direct reward, High And Low has no interest in paying Gondo with tangible victories for doing the right thing. His actions win public approval, but the public doesn’t save him; this isn’t It’s A Wonderful Life, where the community rallies to reward the hero’s sacrifices by giving him the money he needs. There are small paybacks: The shoe-company executives who forced Gondo out are opened up to public ridicule, though the movie never addresses whether that affects their future, or their bottom line. Meanwhile, the cynical financiers who deliberately called his debt in early—ending his last chance to preserve his fortune—go completely unpunished. Gondo himself gets to face the kidnapper who ruined him, but there’s no catharsis or satisfaction in the confrontation. At best, he learns that his destruction was the whim of a poor and angry man. There’s no specific personal connection between them; Gondo isn’t paying for some slight or abuse he committed in the past. He’s paying for being rich in a world where other people are hungry and poor, for living high on a hill (and being a high-minded man who makes the “high” moral choice) while others with “low” morals live low in the valley.
But the important thing about the story, for a Japanese audience, is that he does his duty to Aoki and his son. And in turn, he inspires other people to do their duty to the utmost as well. The policemen focus all their resources on catching the kidnapper, urging each other on in Gondo’s name; judging from their words and behavior, their goal apparently isn’t first and foremost to punish a criminal, or prevent him from acting again, but to honor Gondo’s sacrifice. Aoki, similarly, pushes himself and his son to help the investigation, both to honor Gondo and to erase Aoki’s shame over an obligation too large to be paid back. Even the media jumps on the bandwagon, with the local newspaper reporters hiding developments in the case from the public to help the cops, and replacing their scoops about the kidnapper case with derogatory pieces about Gondo’s greedy former employers. In the wake of Gondo’s giri—his honorable recognition that community and a helpless boy come before his own goals—the city is inspired to find its own honor in service.
The funny thing in all this is that Gondo starts out as something of a Western hero. In fighting the “Old Man” and the grasping up-and-comers trying to oust him, Gondo comes across as a rugged individual who wants to go against the collective and establish himself over his own little fiefdom. But even in that goal, he’s selflessly serving a bigger collective. His enthusiasm and romanticism over the shoe trade, of all things, is about serving the people with the products they deserve, valuing their comfort over his profit. Even in selfishness, he’s selfless. He’s a Japanese hero for the ages: One who knows the honorable path, and knows exactly how hard it is to walk it, but chooses it anyway, even if he has to drag himself down it, kicking and screaming in frustration the whole way.
Our look at Akira Kurosawa’s High And Low continues tomorrow with a staff Forum discussing the film. On Thursday, Mike D’Angelo will conclude the discussion with an essay on the film’s literal moves from high to low.