February 8, 2013

24. 天国と地獄 (1963)

directed by Akira Kurosawa
written by Hideo Oguni, Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Akira Kurosawa
based on the book King’s Ransom (1959) by Ed McBain


Criterion #24. Now that’s more like it.

Crime noir goes to Japan, blends in, disappears.

Here we go again:

天国 = “tengoku,” meaning “heaven” (or “The Kingdom of Heaven”)
と = “to,” meaning “and”
地獄 = “jigoku,” meaning “hell”

So Tengoku to Jigoku, meaning Heaven and Hell. Which, you’ll notice, rhymes in Japanese, and makes me wish it did in English too. Like if the word for hell was “Bevin.” That would be great.

(Actually this probably doesn’t count as a rhyme in Japanese. They don’t really do syllable stress the way we do. And, as I’ve just now read, if your standard for rhyme is that the final syllables share vowel sounds, nearly every Japanese sentence “rhymes” with every other because they all end with the verb and their verbs have standard endings. Which means that the concept of “rhyme” as we know it is almost meaningless in Japanese. Apparently none of their lyrics or poetry “rhymes.” Maybe it’s no surprise to you, but the idea that “rhyme” isn’t a universal is new and shocking to me!)

The standard English name of this movie is not Heaven and Hell but High and Low. One wonders what anonymous person gets to casually come up with such things, and leave a mark on someone else’s movie forever. Some guy in an American distribution office? The Criterion disc contains both the original Japanese trailer and the American trailer, and the differences are instructive, if unsurprising. The Japanese trailer basically resembles the movie in tone and rhythm, while the American one is cut much faster, incorporates some new Saul Bass-style graphics, and places an emphasis on movement, no matter how senseless. It’s all-around pretty trashy. And I’m not ashamed to say that I found the misleading, mercenary, incoherent American trailer much more enticing than the Japanese one. In fact the American trailer almost got away with triggering a retrospective revision of my impression of the movie. “Hey, this movie looks pretty weird and exciting! I guess I have to admit that it was kind of weird and exciting!”

And I do! I do admit that. I enjoyed the movie. It has a patient, cared-for quality that I am starting to think might be the Kurosawa signature touch. I felt exactly the classic art-house satisfaction of having taken in something both genuinely nourishing and genuinely foreign. I think I even preferred it to Seven Samurai. Fewer samurai, for one thing.

The widescreen is used with intelligence and quality. The movie is attractive. (And I’ll note that black and white widescreen movies are a rarity.)

What the American trailer suggests is a noir-ish crime drama, which is more or less accurate, though the impression of a lurid beatnik wildness is obviously false. What the American trailer intentionally obscures is the spirit of formalism that haunts the whole thing, for good and for odd. The movie is around 2 hours 20 minutes. Nearly the entire first hour is a one-room melodrama in a large modern living room, staged and performed like theater and shot with geometric vigor. It reminded me of the serious-minded teleplays of the same era; it has the same portentous spareness, the tense buzzing silences. As stage melodramas go, it is bold and effective: will the rich man pay a ruinous ransom to save someone else’s son? I found it riveting and I was drawn into the ethical questions, boldface and unlikely though they were. I also found it very peculiar.

In the bonus materials we learn that Kurosawa’s method was to rehearse and perform long scenes in their entirety, filming them with two cameras both at a good distance from the actors, and then make it cinematic by crosscutting in the editing room. He believed that the theatrical approach to shooting tended to give better, more fluid, more committed performances. We also hear from a number of the actors and crew that the atmosphere in the living room set was incredibly intense, with so much silence through so many very long takes (up to 10 minutes at a time). All of this is very clear in the finished product. The actors are operating on high-stakes theatrical time, but the director/editor — not to mention the audience — is on cinematic time, which is more compressible, more personal. Long passages of the tensely rehearsed, collaborative rhythms of the stage, subtly artificial, will be suddenly shot through with a burst of editorial rhythm: a single observing mind, free to bound through the action at the speed of thought. The movie has two very different sorts of heartbeat, coexisting. The effect makes up for what it lacks in dramatic efficacy with what it offers to the conscious mind — it’s intriguingly strange! But I’m not sure this is a trade-off he meant to make.

After almost an hour of very, very slow build in this one room, there is suddenly a change of scenery to a moving train for a 5-minute Hitchcockian sequence of high impact that exploits and releases the accumulated tension. The effect is splendid; a very symphonic sort of thing to do, though on an even grander timescale. (No symphony has an hour-long first movement! No reputable symphony, anyway.)

Then, just after the one-hour mark, the movie goes around a corner and becomes a manhunt procedural that wanders freely around the city, the kind with occasional cutting to the as-yet-uncaught bad guy (you know, a la Silence of the Lambs). This is a structure with its own characteristic energy graph, and again Kurosawa’s version is askew from the standard.

I’ve always thought the generic term “procedural” was a little silly, but here it seems right; Kurosawa’s interest in procedure itself is quite pure. At one point we are treated to a ten-minute scene of the cops giving a status report on the various leads they’ve been investigating. This goes beyond even Law and Order, where such scenes are usually livened up by unlikely revelations in the course of the conversation. These status reports are really status reports! The guy on the commentary track says that Kurosawa may have been interested in the incremental, methodical nature of a police investigation because it resembled his work as a director. This jibes with the impression of Kurosawa I got from the other interviews, as well as from the work itself. Patience, always!

And his genuine interest comes through and is accessible to the viewer. I was never bored; my attention was always naturally drawn near to the place it was meant to go. On the other hand, a kind of specter of potential boredom was usually nearby to worry me. “What kind of a thing am I watching, exactly? Is this actually working properly, or am I only finding this interesting because I am addicted to paying attention to things no matter what?” That may just be my anxiety du jour, but it’s related to longstanding art-house angst and I want to keep voicing it as long as it holds. The pretentious sorts would have it that the conventional practices of American movies are limiting and deadening. But conventions offer a stable context, and stability is necessary for grounding more elaborate experiences. Encountering the new and unusual is stimulating, sure, but stimulation pales next to communication. “Interpretation” is interesting work, but shallow.

Though actually, that sort of pretentiousness is probably on the outs, what with Vertigo being the new best movie of all time.

And in any case, High and Low is hardly the movie to have this discussion. All things considered, this is a very easy movie with a basically undistracting technique. It’s based on American material and American models. And the extremely patient attitude doesn’t deaden the standard suspense-value of the investigation; it simply prolongs it and encourages us to smell the flowers as we go. Imagine a single episode of Law and Order expanded to 2 1/2 hours, but without adding any new scenes or plotting. Probably some flower-smelling would start to happen.

The aforementioned American material is an undistinguished novel by the prolific pulpster Ed McBain. I coincidentally had my first encounter with Mr. McBain last year after being gifted a pile of arbitrarily selected Hard Case Crime paperbacks. Make no mistake: the book was junkola. (This one on the other hand was surprisingly good.) Based on its non-reputation within McBain’s extensive output, I imagine that King’s Ransom, from whence High and Low, is equally junky. But the premise that Kurosawa latched on to — that the wrong person is kidnapped but the kidnappers still demand a ransom — is exactly the kind of nugget of genuine inspiration that makes pulp fun to read. Plotting is its own sort of art, and one that is very seldom done at the highest level. Ambitious works tend to downgrade it and commercial works that keep it in the spotlight often tend to hold it to lower standards. Seeing a kernel of inspiration scooped out of the junkpile, where such inspiration is so often born, and then put straight to work in the art-house where plot is just skeleton, I feel a pang of frustration: will this idea never be given its place of honor in a full-fledged, fully artful plot? Probably not.

I could go on about plot and its neglect as an art, but this is all another entry for another time.

This is starting to drag on so let’s move on to the other stuff on the disc. The commentary is a fine specimen of the academic sort. The guy seems mostly to be reading a script he wrote for himself, full of research into: Japanese kidnapping cases and police procedure, socio-economic trends in postwar Japan, Kurosawa’s techniques, interests, and possible motivation, and a very few bits of behind-the-scenes trivia that are duplicated from the Japanese TV documentary on the second disc. He seems to have a pretty good attitude and nothing he says is forced or blatantly irrelevant. But it’s still an academic commentary. Its tacit assumption is that we have “interpretation” to do.

I’ll repeat: “Interpretation” is interesting work, but shallow. Can’t everybody see, by now, that abstracting to the historical or the political is just a quickie device to get credit for “digging below the surface”? And that the very fact that this analytic pocketknife is universally applicable is exactly why its application should be viewed with intense skepticism? Just as the more applicable a molecule of humor is (Garfield’s hatred for Mondays is applicable every Monday), the less likely it is to be funny.

I’m not saying that “historicism” is an error and that “aestheticism” needs to be opposed to it. I’m just saying maybe we should try to hold ourselves to a higher standard and not say things about art just because they can be said. Because it’s very hard to unhear things. If someone made some arbitrary case to me about how High and Low is actually a coded allegory of the history of Japan — or the mind-body problem — or the story of Adam and Eve — I’d have a very hard time wiping the slate truly clean to watch it properly again. Interpretation in bad faith is a kind of mental vandalism. So what I’m saying is, Shut up everybody, unless you really mean it. It’s the sense that they don’t really mean it that frustrates me. And of course academics don’t really mean it — their interests couldn’t be more conflicted.

(I do believe them about global warming, though, just for the record.)

In addition to the Japanese TV documentary I mentioned, we get a new interview with Tsutomu Yamazaki, who plays the Norman Batesy kidnapper, and also a quirky 1981 appearance by Toshiro Mifune on “Tetsuko’s Room,” a daytime TV interview show with the same pastel mindset as, say, Regis and Kathie Lee, but Japanese. Mifune talks about his childhood and wartime experiences; doesn’t mention High and Low once. Tetsuko asks Mifune why his pants are so short. He looks at them in surprise and says that they are old.

Something I learned from disc 2 is that it is standard for Japanese interviewers to constantly make breathy sounds of awed fascination while the other person is talking. Presumably this is to comfort the interviewees as they pass through the valley of the shadow of speaking aloud. I also had occasion to reflect on how differently the Japanese relate to fear generally. The stigma (as per my RoboCop entry) does not have the same sway over there, or at least didn’t for the older generation. Nearly every one of the aging men reflecting on his High and Low experience talks wide-eyed about how scared he was about messing up. “I was so nervous! I was shaking!” It seems like one after another of them wants to pronounce his own frailty and chuckle — like it’s great fun, or even just common courtesy, to make mention of one’s own crippling timidity. Is a culture of false strength better or worse than a culture of false weakness? Trick question, I hope.

Okay, I’ll be fair: I actually think the title High and Low is pretty good. The scheme of the movie is that heaven is a wealthy guy living in luxury on a hill, and hell is the poverty and resentment of the criminal in the city beneath him, so unlike “heaven and hell,” “high and low” applies directly in terms of both geography and class. Plus it echoes the phrase “searched high and low,” which suits the action, since the second half of the movie is a manhunt. And the religious overtones of “heaven and hell” are pretty much not to be found in the movie itself, whereas the abstraction of “high and low” feels suited to the slightly geometric, formalist style. And “heaven and hell” is simply more cliche.

Then again, Heaven and Hell sounds more like pulp noir. You decide: which title does this main title track sound more like? This is by the very prolific Masaru Sato, in the middle of a string of well-known Kurosawa movies. I don’t know what it’s doing exactly but it’s something. From what I just sampled of his work on Youtube, it sounds like it all has the same spirit: West meets East meets conservatory meets TV; we’ll be right back after these messages.

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