Movie Dictator Club: Tengoku To Jigoku (High And Low, 1963)

The Movie Dictator Club for the month of August, 2010 is Kurosawa all the time, all the time!

Screenplay By: Eijirô Hisaita, Ryûzô Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa & Hideo Oguni
Directed By: Akira Kurosawa

Maybe I’m wrong, I often am after all, but Tengoku To Jigoku feels like Akira Kurosawa’s entry in the 1960’s movement of cool cinema. I know, I know there was never any cool movement in cinema, I’m making that up, big whoop. The point I am trying to make is that I’ve always viewed the 1960’s as a time when cool was King in cinema. You had Jean-Pierre Melville coming into his own as a filmmaker, Sergio Leone crafting The Man With No Name trilogy, and a bevy of other films where a sense of cool was a major part of the film making process. Kurosawa being the craftsman that he was had to add his own voice to the 1960’s movement of cool cinema, and to do so he made Tengoku To Jigoku.

There an ease with which Kurosawa directs Tengoku To Jigoku, and that is where the coolness comes into play. His camera has moments where it moves a lot, but it also has moments where it stays still for long stretches, simply allowing the action to take place in front of the audience. You get the sense that Tengoku To Jigoku is a great filmmaker putting his stamp on something and saying, “See fellas, I can do it too, if I so choose.” There’s nothing cooler than that really, and it’s all summed up perfectly in the moment I chose for my screenshot. My actual reaction while watching Takeuchi emerge from the underbrush with those illuminated sun glasses of his was, “God dammit, this is so fucking cool!” I loved that feeling, I loved the fact that Kurosawa was able to so effortlessly draw me into this world, pardon my French for a moment, but I just fucking loved it!

But, that isn’t enough for Kurosawa, because he is Akira “God Damn!” Kurosawa. Cool is great and all, but Kurosawa makes sure to layer a great morality tale around all of the cool. The first hour or so takes place in a single room, time elapses, our characters come and go, but we never leave that room. The thing that makes Kurosawa such a great filmmaker is that he creates a situation where we don’t need to leave that room. I was fully engaged by the quandary Mr. Gondo was faced with. I spent a good deal of time debating what I would do if I were ever faced with such a situation. The more I thought about the situation of Tengoku To Jigoku, the more I realized that it went beyond a simple morality play. Gondo represented Japan and their need to advance at any cost after World War II. But, what if that cost was their fellow man, what if in their zeal to become a strong nation again they lost sight of the very tenets that make us human? That can then be taken even further and Gondo can represent not just the Japanese, but all of humanity. How much are we liable to our fellow man, what measures should we take in order to help our fellow man? All questions Kurosawa asks in Tengoku To Jigoku, and you won’t find a single answer, because that just wouldn’t be cool man.

Hold your horses mates, Kurosawa isn’t done yet. He’s splashed you with cool and slapped you in the face with some morality, now he wants to thrill you with a taut detective story. Kurosawa can do it all and Tengoku To Jigoku has it all, because while the second half of Tengoku To Jigoku is a vastly different film it is great in just as many ways as the first half. The focus shifts completely to the investigative side of the ledger, but Kurosawa never skips a beat, each new twist and turn in the investigation draws the viewer even deeper into Tengoku To Jigoku. The ending is the icing on the cake, it brings the thrill of the investigation to the end, the coolness pops its shades back on and the morality play asks one final question before signing off.

I didn’t think it was possible at all, but Tengoku To Jigoku made me like Akira Kurosawa even more. I had mad respect for the man to begin with, but Tengoku To Jigoku made me sit back and go, “whoa,” and as I said, I love when a move elicits that sort of reaction from me. If you want cool then Tengoku To Jigoku is the movie for you. If you want your morality questioned, then Tengoku To Jigoku is the movie for you. If you want to be thrilled, then Tengoku To Jigoku is the movie for you. If you want to watch a great movie, then Tengoku To Jigoku is the movie for you. Screw it, I can’t say anything better than the screenshot I grabbed. Look at that people, look at how awesome and cool that screenshot is and know that you need to see Tengoku To Jigoku, it really is that simple.




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