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Sunday, July 1, 2012

TENGOKU TO JIGOKU / HIGH AND LOW (1962)

Akira Kurosawa makes his point right at the start of this suspenser, before we reach the main event, the kidnapping that runs the plot. In what must have seemed the largest living room then in Japan, a trio of profit-minded execs make their case against product quality. Too much bother, too expensive, too old-fashioned; why aim for durable when planned obsolescence brings lower production costs & quicker repeat business? The suits are talking about shoes, but Kurosawa sees them as representative of the new post-war Japan. And all he's got to rage against the decline in modern values is his stand-in, the great Toshiro Mifune as their adversary, the last honorable company man. Mifune is poised to risk everything on a leveraged buyout, and symbolically save Japan from short-sighted ways, when the plot kicks in on this thrilling genre pic, taken from, of all things, an Ed McBain 87th Precinct novel. The business plan will evaporate when the chauffeur’s son is mistakenly kidnapped in place of Mifune's, yet he still goes thru with the ransom. Kurosawa makes it all a stunning structural piece of work by staying in Mifune's living room for the film’s first part, pivoting in the short second act to detail the ransom drop from a fast moving train, and finally moving to the street for the sharpest police procedural imaginable for act three. The brilliance in the conception is equaled in execution, with a great cast of Kurosawa regulars and newbies. And something prescient in the way Mifune turns the screen over to Tatsuya Nakadai’s detective just as he would give way in Kurosawa’s late films. Though here, a bit of sentiment brings Mifune back for the stark, memorable coda.

DOUBLE-BILL: The young Mifune had the detective role in STRAY DOG/’49, an early Kurosawa classic.

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