HIGH AND LOW (天国と地獄)

Comfort watching comes in all shapes in sizes. Sometimes it’s a chubby little cubby all stuffed with fluff. Other times it’s Gene Kelly dancing with an umbrella and splashing around in puddles. Diversion, you could call it: A moment of pure cotton candy. It zaps you with sugary sweetness, wipes the blues away, and makes you hum a little ditty.

But diversions work best in small doses. Like a sugar high, they’re difficult to sustain, and too much will leave you feeling sicker than when you started. Kelly can prance in those puddles all he wants, but the blues are here to stay.

The time has come for something else, something that doesn’t divert your emotions but embraces them. You want to empathize with characters who are going through what you’re going through, surviving the struggles you’re surviving, and asking the deep, difficult questions keeping you up at night.

You need existential cinema.

Though most point to Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard as the progenitor of existentialism, the movement wouldn’t have made it half as far if not for novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Between each page of prose, you can feel Dostoyevsky wrestling with his desire to be a moral man in a world littered with immoral attractions and addictions. Add highly structured tales of cause and effect, the ever-present element of chance, and it’s no wonder filmmakers have been drawn to his work.

King among them: Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, who counted the Russian as one of his primary influences. And few of Kurosawa’s films wear Dostoyevsky on its sleeve like High and Low, an acute criticism between the disparity of the haves, the have nots, the have lesses, and the have nothings. It’s like walking in a strange city without a map: You have no idea where you’re headed, what’s around the next corner, and where the touristy part of the city ends and the red light district begins. By the time the steel curtain falls, you’ll never look at the world the same again.

High and Low is streaming on The Criterion Channel and Kanopy. A version of the above blurb first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly, Vol. 27, No. 38, “Home Viewing: Existential Cinema.”