Heaven and Hell by Akira Kurosawa

Yeah, so after that review of Grave of the Fireflies, I knew I had to review another movie to counteract the depression. You see, Heaven and Hell by Akira Kurosawa is much cheerier. No one dies. And it involves a kidnapping. Clearly, the cheeriest movie I could review.

Okay, okay, I lied. Someone does die. But it’s off screen and at the very end, so you’ll have to forgive me.

The movie Heaven and Hell, originally titled Tengoku to Jigoku, kind of falls outside the spectrum of what we normally cover on this blog. It’s not really a part of the geek culture, but if you’re a fan of Akira Kurosawa, Japan in anyway, or just movies in general, you may have heard of it. At the very least, you’ll probably have heard of Mr. Kurosawa.

Before we go on, Heaven and Hell is not the English name of this movie. That’s a direct translation of Tengoku to Jigoku. I didn’t actually realize until sitting down to write this that its English title is High and Low. And that doesn’t really fit the film. I can understand it, but the movie makes constant references to, well, Heaven and Hell, so for our purposes it’s called Heaven and Hell.

This is not my favorite Kurosawa production. I think I may be in the minority in not liking this film. For example, this person has a completely differing view on it than I do.

However, this movie was an important part of Kurosawa’s career. Released in 1963, Heaven and Hell served as his first foray into colored features. Most of the movie is black and white, which the exception of one scene, which we’ll get to. I’m also nowhere near as familiar with Kurosawa’s works as I should be, and it’s entirely possible the only reason I don’t like this is just his style, but I really don’t like this movie as a whole. Even my Japanese film professor seemed shocked when I told him I didn’t like it—or that may have been because I wrote him a four-page essay on why I didn’t like it. But I’m pretty sure I am the minority on this one.

The Washington Post wrote this:

High and Low is, in a way, the companion piece to Throne of Blood—it’s Macbeth, if Macbeth had married better. The movie shares the rigors of Shakespeare’s construction, the symbolic and historical sweep, the pacing that makes the story expand organically in the mind.

Yeah, I don’t agree with any of that, but let’s move on.

At first glance, Heaven and Hell pulls the watcher in with an intriguing plot and the potential of well-developed characters. The story is about rich Mr. Gondo, who, after arguing with some business associates and scheming ways to overcome their taking over the shoe company they all work for, receives a phone call from someone demanding ransom for his son. Then, in an epic discovery, Mr. Gondo finds that the kidnapper has mistaken his son for his son’s friend. Now he is faced with the choice either to run himself, his wife, and his own child into a life less fancy than the one they have by doing the honorable thing and paying the ransom of thirty million (about $400,000 in today’s dollars), thus putting his business deals on hold and allowing the other men to take over the company. Or he can choose not to give into the kidnapper’s demands and become even richer.

Well, the choice is clear, right? After all, what child is worth thirty-million when you have a business deal? Okay, I’m just playing with you. Mr. Gondo does pay the ransom. Eventually.

Thirty million is a lot, and so I do commend the character for making the right choice. It’s just how the movie goes about it that bothers me.

Mr. Gondo starts out seeming like an honorable man. This is shown in the beginning scene when he refuses to help the other businessmen overthrow someone in the company. They also want to sell cheaply made shoes for high prices, and Mr. Gondo doesn’t want to sell mediocre products to his customers. Mr. Gondo knows that if he doesn’t help the other men, it will affect him in the company as well, so to secure his position, he starts calling other stock holders to buy their shares.

Unfortunately, by doing this, he places his family in financial jeopardy. If his deal pulls through and he has enough stock to outvote the other men, everything will be fine, but that’s only if he can get fifty-million (all of his money) to Osaka by tomorrow. Thus, he arranges for his servant to fly the check there on a ten o’clock flight.

When he receives the ransom call for his son he immediately plans to let the other men have the company in order to give the kidnapper thirty million. He does as the kidnapper says and doesn’t call the police and pretty much gets down on his hands and knees—as much as someone can over the phone—begging the kidnapper not to hurt his son.

Regrettably, all these wonderful traits are soon destroyed when he discovers that his son is safe and it’s his son’s friend who has been taken. Mr. Gondo immediately calls the police then, because well, it’s no longer his son in danger. It doesn’t matter that the kidnapper says he’ll kill the boy, because Mr. Gondo’s son is perfectly fine. Mr. Gondo also no longer wants to pay the ransom. He grows arrogant and completely disregards the thoughts of the other father who is pleading with him to give into the demands. But hey, why should Mr. Gondo worry about the other boy’s safety when he has a business deal to take care of? He tries to justify this, saying that without the deal he’d be throwing his family into poverty and he needs to think about them. He even goes so far as to yell at the other father and belittle him. Yes, he does need to think about his family, I’ll give him that. But he becomes so cold-hearted in this situation that it’s almost impossible to agree with him.

None of Mr. Gondo’s “dark side” would be a problem if it had been done correctly, but it wasn’t. As much as someone could say that Mr. Gondo’s necessary character flaw is his ego, someone else could easily argue that because the audience is expected to agree with him that it isn’t. Mr. Gondo shuts down arguments against his stance throughout the entire film, and since this is mostly from his perspective, the audience cannot view what the other characters think about the situation.

When I first watched the movie, I thought of Mr. Gondo as being a Gary Stu, and now that it’s been awhile and I’ve distanced myself from the film, my opinion is… I don’t care if he is one or not; I still find him insufferable.

Now, as for the other father, no one of any importance cares about how he feels about all this. In fact, he’s practically the comic relief of the film. This entire movie, it was almost as though all the characters were going, “Oh, that sobbing man over there, he’s fine. His kid might die. That’s all. But Mr. Gondo, on the other hand, might not be able to make his business deal. Isn’t that just awful!”

In this movie, everyone is in accordance with Mr. Gondo, and if they aren’t, well, their ideas don’t matter anyway, simply because Mr. Gondo is angsting about not saving the kid because he has to make a business deal. The one time someone really calls Mr. Gondo out for what he is doing, the audience in still expected to agree with Mr. Gondo because that entire scene only exists to make the other man look like a jerk.

Or at least these are my opinions. Now that I’ve talked about Mr. Gondo more than I’ve ever cared to, I’m going to move onto the movie in general.

The first half and the second half of the movie have two completely different tones to them, which is not bad, considering that as the plot progresses aspects of any film need to change. The second half is lighter than the first because Mr. Gondo finally does the right thing and pays the ransom. Thus, the child is saved, and now the movie consists more of the police officers trying to catch the kidnapper. Of course, this doesn’t stop the film from trying to impart on the audience what a great man Mr. Gondo is and how we should all feel bad for him since he had to give up some of his money. I get that Mr. Gondo was in a bad situation, but after a while, I just wanted him to stop angsting for a whole two minutes.

The first half of the movie takes place in and around Mr. Gondo’s house. The second half, we don’t really see the house again. This is not a problem, since the house, always being there the first half, almost becomes a symbol for the serious atmosphere Kurosawa was trying to convey. My problem is that the characters leave the house right before the end of this first half to go on a train. I realize that they had to get on this train; I really do, because that was how they needed to pay the ransom—by throwing suitcases with money out the train window. But because they were always in the house, suddenly switching sets before the general atmosphere of the movie changed just seemed odd. It didn’t feel right. I know they had to get on the train, but Kurosawa should’ve used a few more sets beforehand to make this smoother.

I’m not a movie maker. I don’t direct films, so I’m not the best judge on this, but I didn’t like that set up. As for the use of color, well…

I liked the use of color in this film. I thought it was a good way to get the viewer’s attention on something that was important. That said. The color could’ve been better. The characters make a big deal about how the kidnapper will probably burn the suitcases after he takes the money, so the police and Mr. Gondo hide packets in the cases that will smoke pink when set on fire. In the second half of the film, we see pink smoke, quite literally. It’s the only color in this entire movie. It’s also really unexpected, which is nice. The problem is, the pink smoke doesn’t really lead the police investigation anywhere. It seems as though it’s only there to tie up a loose end. And therefore, the pink smoke is too prominent.

Maybe if Kurosawa really wanted to keep the smoke pink, he should’ve had other things in color for the duration of the movie. He could’ve found things that our attention already should have been focused on, and used color to emphasize that. And if he really had to have the pink smoke to remain as prominent as it was, he could have made all the other colors cool: blues, greens, purples, etc. And just used a tad bit of warm colors here and there: reds, yellows, oranges, etc. That way the pink, being warm, would have still stuck out.

But as the movie is, it sticks out too much for such a minor plot point. I personally think that for the sake of the movie, Kurosawa should’ve used more color, or avoided it entirely. But he was experimenting using color in this film, so I can’t really fault him for wanting to try. Pink is just about the only color the characters pay much attention to, so I suppose I can let it slide.

Now, about the title, whether it’s Heaven and Hell or High and Low, I’m not really sure I get it. The kidnapper, when we do see him at the end, first appears as someone who has no feelings about being executed. And I have to say, throughout this entire film, everyone mentions that the kidnapper has to be such a horrible person for what he did. Yes, he broke the law, but he’s made out to be a monster almost to the same annoying extent as Mr. Gondo’s Gary-Stu greatness. And even though the police said that he’d only get five years in jail after being caught, he’s going to be executed. Mr. Gondo’s money is just that important, I suppose. Then, after the kidnapper says he doesn’t care that he’s going to die, he throws a fit and needs to be restrained by the guards, because he actually really does care, like any sane person would. The kidnapper says he did what he did because Mr. Gondo was living in heaven while he was living in hell. That’s where the title of this movie obviously came from.

And it’s still a horrible title. And that heaven-and-hell line is just as bad. It’s the entire premise of the movie, but it’s not shown at all. The only thing the audience knows of the kidnapper’s supposed hell is that his house is really cold during winter and hot during summer, to the point where he can’t sleep. The movie doesn’t show this; it tells us this. As for Mr. Gondo’s heaven, the only heaven we see is him fighting with a bunch of greedy business men about shoes. Everything else about Mr. Gondo’s life in the film is him worrying about having to pay the kidnapper money.

But again, I think I may be in the minority. If any of you have seen the film, give me your thoughts and feel free to disagree.

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About MadameAce

I draw, I write, I paint, and I read. I used to be really into anime and manga until college, where I fell out of a lot of my fandoms to pursue my studies. College was also the time I discovered my asexuality, and I have been fascinated by different sexualities ever since. I grew up in various parts of the world, and I've met my fair share of experiences and cultures along the way. Sure, I'm a bit socially awkward and not the easiest person to get along with, but I do hold great passion for my interests, and I can only hope that the things I have to talk about interest you as well.