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Brian D

Film Club Oct - Nov 2017 - High and Low

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I will start this Film Club thread with a goofy ad filled with sensational blurbs meant to get you to watch Kurosawa’s High and LowEasy to rent on Amazon or ITunes.

 

“HIGH AND LOW is really great…if we went with it I'd be more than happy to re-watch. I mean,  Kurosawa!” - NBooth

 I'd be excited to watch anything by these directors!” – Rob Z

“Let's go with High and Low.  I'll try to start a thread soon!” – Brian D

“HIGH AND LOW is high on my to-watch list for my PhD research!” – Joel Mayward

 

 

I hope you are inspired to watch with us!!!

 

Edited by Brian D

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Other (more serious) stuff meant to get you to watch High and Low :

 

 

-A.O. Scott on High and Low : “One of the best detective thrillers ever filmed.”


- Roger Ebert on High and Low (sort of spoiler): “Few Japanese directors would have thought to adapt one of Ed McBain's crime stories, for example, but Kurosawa, reading King's Ransom, found the materials for one of his most challenging films, "High and Low" (1962). In it, a wealthy man is told his son has been kidnapped. He must sell everything to raise the ransom. Then it's discovered that the kidnapper mistakenly kidnapped the son of the millionaire's chauffeur instead. Is this boy worth the same ransom? As the eyes of the millionaire and the workingman meet in a shot of stunning power, Kurosawa confronts the question of whether all lives are equal.”

 

 

-In a 3-way tie with 2 other Kurosawa films for 1st place on Guillermo del Toro’s favorite Criterion films list.

 

-#3 on Scott Derrickson’s list of his favorite Kurosawa films.  On A & F, he noted that the top 20 on his list are all masterpieces.  To emphasize the point, High and Low was #3.

Edited by Brian D

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Questions: (lots of spoilers!)

-What did you love about this film?  What did you struggle with?

-Haunted by the final shot of the faces interposed.  How does this scene and this shot impact the film?

-How does the title interact with the film?  Why High and Low?  It's adapted from a novel called King's Ransom, which could signify a different meaning and intention.

-Do you have any thoughts about Gondo's change of course?  What prompted it?  What does it mean for you as you look at the film as a whole?

-Fascinating that this is on Joel's list of films to watch for his PhD research.  Joel, can you please share more about that? 

-For those who know Kurosawa's works well: does this relate or compare in interesting ways with his other films? 

-Mystified by the intern and the way the film associates him with dead-end poverty.  Help me out, someone...am I understanding this right?  Extrapolating from modern Western societies, this intern would eventually be able to make a good deal more money a few years down the road.  Would an intern like this have been in a different situation at this time in Japanese history?  Perhaps I don't understand this character's profession correctly. 

-Share your own questions as well!

Edited by Brian D

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HIGH AND LOW is one of my favorite Kurosawas as well. It's a master class in directing, script, and in acting, particularly from Mifune and Nakadai. If you only know those two from Samurai pictures, this will greatly expand your understanding of their achievement as film actors.

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When you mentioned Nakadai, I took a look to see who he played in the film.  I was just recalling how his and the Bosun character register so strongly as characters with seemingly almost no introduction at all.  If I go by this example, I would say that Kurosawa has a gift for bringing in characters that arrive in a film fully formed, as if you had met them before or were instantly familiar with them. 

Yes, a master class indeed on all of those levels.  I'd like to add that the sound design of the film is masterful....especially in the sounds of the final scene and in one of the climactic scenes in which the music seems incongruous but overwhelming.  And that telephone, signaling another round of dread with each ring...  The final scene's jarring sounds could in fact be seen as illustrations of a certain desperate state of the soul. 

 

 

Edited by Brian D

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As to a couple of Brian's questions, I thought the title High and Low referred to stations in life of the characters, which was mirrored by the locations of where they lived.  And I understood the character working in the hospital to be some sort of orderly, which wouldn't be someone who was on his way up in life.

I'm used to Kurosawa films with Mifune being period pieces (I haven't seen Stray Dogs), so this was an interesting change.  I liked the 60s fashions, not that they were striking in any particular way but just because it strikes a chord of nostalgia in me since the 60s is when I grew up.  (I had the same reaction to A Serious Man.)  Did anyone else think some the joking on the part of the detectives seemed out of place?  It wasn't the usual sardonic police humor, but more of a sense of laughing a bit at Gondo's misfortune.

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15 hours ago, Froggy said:

As to a couple of Brian's questions, I thought the title High and Low referred to stations in life of the characters, which was mirrored by the locations of where they lived.  And I understood the character working in the hospital to be some sort of orderly, which wouldn't be someone who was on his way up in life.

I'm used to Kurosawa films with Mifune being period pieces (I haven't seen Stray Dogs), so this was an interesting change.  I liked the 60s fashions, not that they were striking in any particular way but just because it strikes a chord of nostalgia in me since the 60s is when I grew up.  (I had the same reaction to A Serious Man.)  Did anyone else think some the joking on the part of the detectives seemed out of place?  It wasn't the usual sardonic police humor, but more of a sense of laughing a bit at Gondo's misfortune.

That's an interesting question about the joking of the police detectives.  There may be some truth to the idea that the breezier tone of the middle-act police investigation scenes is at odds with the gravity of the 1st and 3rd acts.  Honestly, though, I enjoyed those investigation scenes so much that it didn't occur to me.  I coasted along with them, delighted that such a high-level filmmaker as Kurosawa would stoop down to revel not only in the twisty crime logistics but also in the very lively humor of those police discussions.  Those police meetings seem like deep dives into the genre of the police procedural, yet with a crackling energy and levity. 

I can see, though, how the film when viewed as a whole might break down a little from that sharp tonal shift in the middle.  It makes it slightly more difficult to piece it together in our minds as a complete work.  The 1st and 3rd acts, though, are also not without their own dark humor and crime genre elements.

This is so fun to talk about... would love to hear what others think of this issue.

Edited by Brian D

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On 25/10/2017 at 7:16 PM, Brian D said:

-Fascinating that this is on Joel's list of films to watch for his PhD research.  Joel, can you please share more about that? 

My research is focused on the films of the Dardennes, and they recently gave a list of 79 of their "favorite" films to a Belgian film website, which was picked up at Indiewire. The list is fascinating to me for the themes and connections between films, both in style and content. Social realism prevails on the list, as do coming-of-age or films about childhood. Lots of urban landscapes and visions of poverty or the underbelly of society. They also include a lot of films which are noteworthy for their ethical dilemmas, ones where both the characters and the audience are forced to reckon with complex moral choices, usually involving mortality. From Kurosawa, they listed Ikiru, Red Beard, and High and Low

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Ok, so not-bad-but-pressing-personal-life-stuff obviously kept me from watching this movie before yesterday. Like I mentioned when the film was suggested, I saw this movie (and liked it) a while back. Revisiting it confirmed that response; this is such a clean movie--by which I mean all the pieces fit together like clockwork. It's tight. The second half of the movie, involving the police-work, isn't what some folks would call exciting (it's procedural in the purest sense), but watching a room full of professionals do their thing well always holds a certain attraction to me. 

I was struck by how neatly the movie divides into two halves. The first half--which could be a movie in itself (a Hitchcock thriller, perhaps)--is, I think, markedly different in tone and focus than the second half, which is (as I say) much more strictly procedural. And I guess there's a corresponding shift between the high of the wealthy shoe manufacturer and the low of the beat cops and such (and, of course, this is a transition Mifune's character makes between halves as well, though he doesn't wind up quite as destitute as the kidnapper).

Obviously, there's a lot to talk about here regarding class issues, and the way the movie ends--abruptly, with the kidnapper (now killer) breaking into hysterical screams--suggests that Kurasawa is at least as interested in that aspect as he is in the cop or thriller elements. 

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There are some interesting parallels between this story and the 1973 abduction and ransom of J. Paul Getty's grandson which is the story told in Ridley Scott's upcoming All the Money in the World. The kidnapping there was done by the mafia, but one of the actual kidnappers apparently was a hospital orderly. And it precipitated personal and familial disintegration for those targeted. 

On 10/25/2017 at 1:07 PM, magadizer said:

It's a master class in directing, script, and in acting, particularly from Mifune and Nakadai. If you only know those two from Samurai pictures, this will greatly expand your understanding of their achievement as film actors.

Always interesting to see actors in roles I’m not used to seeing them in. Mifune is phenomenal, and really made the film for me. Interesting to see that Nakadei also plays Lord Hidetora in Ran. Impressive.

On 10/25/2017 at 11:16 AM, Brian D said:

How does the title interact with the film?  Why High and Low?  It's adapted from a novel called King's Ransom, which could signify a different meaning and intention.

It looks like the literal translation of the title is "Heaven and Hell." I didn't read that until after watching the film, but I seem to remember the criminal talking about his life being a hell at the end, but I can't remember exactly. That seems more relevant to the second half of the film, a commentary on poverty of various kinds, whereas the first half seemed more about the class tension. Gondo's chauffeur seems far from the kind of poverty depicted in the second half, particularly of the drug addicts. 

On 10/26/2017 at 10:47 AM, Brian D said:

I can see, though, how the film when viewed as a whole might break down a little from that sharp tonal shift in the middle.  It makes it slightly more difficult to piece it together in our minds as a complete work.  The 1st and 3rd acts, though, are also not without their own dark humor and crime genre elements.

 

On 11/23/2017 at 4:20 PM, NBooth said:

I was struck by how neatly the movie divides into two halves. The first half--which could be a movie in itself (a Hitchcock thriller, perhaps)--is, I think, markedly different in tone and focus than the second half, which is (as I say) much more strictly procedural. And I guess there's a corresponding shift between the high of the wealthy shoe manufacturer and the low of the beat cops and such (and, of course, this is a transition Mifune's character makes between halves as well, though he doesn't wind up quite as destitute as the kidnapper).

It's a crime film through and through, but I agree that it's trying to be too films at once. I think the drama and conflict of the first half (especially what takes place before the camera ever leaves Gondo's house) is on par with performances I've seen of plays by Ibsen and Arthur Miller. Top notch. But the second half was very so-so by police procedural standards. I'm not at all familiar with the source material, but I'd be interested to know if it's following a shift that works smoother in prose fiction. Anyway, I would have loved it if the film had given us more than just hints at the transition Gondo goes through--the continued conflict within his character and between him and the other board members, and particularly his former assistant, the turncoat. His character was developed in the first half to be a complex character but then he almost completely dropped out, as did nearly everyone but the police and the kidnapper/killer who is introduced by the camera in the second half...how that was done seemed like a misstep in plotting as well, but it's hard to say why.

On 11/23/2017 at 4:20 PM, NBooth said:

Obviously, there's a lot to talk about here regarding class issues, and the way the movie ends--abruptly, with the kidnapper (now killer) breaking into hysterical screams--suggests that Kurasawa is at least as interested in that aspect as he is in the cop or thriller elements.

The final scene is also powerful, but not in the sustained way that the first half builds. Maybe if the first half hadn't been so much more compelling this wouldn't seem like an issue. But if the kidnapper had been present at the very beginning--if we had a sense of his motivations from the beginning, or his desperation before he knows his plan isn't going perfectly, or his moral quandry over aspects of his crimes--that would have made more sense with how the second half played out. But we didn't get that, and that would have detracted from the focus on Gondo, which is where I think the film's strength lies. I agree that Kurosawa is interested, but not to the point of investing his storytelling brilliance in that aspect of the film (the poverty, not just the class difference).

On 11/8/2017 at 12:19 PM, Joel Mayward said:

My research is focused on the films of the Dardennes, and they recently gave a list of 79 of their "favorite" films to a Belgian film website, which was picked up at Indiewire. The list is fascinating to me for the themes and connections between films, both in style and content. Social realism prevails on the list, as do coming-of-age or films about childhood. Lots of urban landscapes and visions of poverty or the underbelly of society. They also include a lot of films which are noteworthy for their ethical dilemmas, ones where both the characters and the audience are forced to reckon with complex moral choices, usually involving mortality. From Kurosawa, they listed Ikiru, Red Beard, and High and Low

This is a fascinating list, indeed! Especially because it's kind of what you'd expect to have influenced the Dardennes, as you say. They sure love Rossellini (9 out of 79)! Joel, if you ever do a longer blog post or something dissecting this list, please be sure to share it!

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Hey everyone, I have an idea for a film club movie for the month of February. A major blind spot for me is historical Black cinema, and I’d like to watch something in that category. I recently came across a book at the library called Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 (2007) by Judith Weisenfeld, and it’s quite interesting (I love the play on “hallowed by thy name.”) One of the major topics of the book is “race films,” films made with black casts for black audiences (theatres were segregated back then) and often by black directors.

The one I’d like to pick for a film club discussion is The Blood of Jesus (1941) directed by Spencer Williams. I haven’t yet seen it, but from reading about it I know that it has several things going for it, in addition to its historical significance:

explicitly religious themes, which I think this group will find worthy of discussion,

a run time of just under an hour, so it should be easy to fit in a busy schedule, and

it’s on YouTube, so it will be easy to access.

What do you think? I’ll start a thread soon if others are interested.

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On 1/28/2018 at 9:42 PM, Rob Z said:

Hey everyone, I have an idea for a film club movie for the month of February. A major blind spot for me is historical Black cinema, and I’d like to watch something in that category. I recently came across a book at the library called Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 (2007) by Judith Weisenfeld, and it’s quite interesting (I love the play on “hallowed by thy name.”) One of the major topics of the book is “race films,” films made with black casts for black audiences (theatres were segregated back then) and often by black directors.

 

The one I’d like to pick for a film club discussion is The Blood of Jesus (1941) directed by Spencer Williams. I haven’t yet seen it, but from reading about it I know that it has several things going for it, in addition to its historical significance:

 

explicitly religious themes, which I think this group will find worthy of discussion,

 

a run time of just under an hour, so it should be easy to fit in a busy schedule, and

 

it’s on YouTube, so it will be easy to access.

 

What do you think? I’ll start a thread soon if others are interested.

No takers?

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On 2/1/2018 at 3:02 AM, Joel Mayward said:

I'm interested, but I fear I won't have the time available in this season. Still, I hope to find time to watch it.

Okay, thanks, Joel. I totally understand. I look forward to watching another film club film with you all at a time when we can swing it.

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On 1/29/2018 at 10:42 AM, Rob Z said:

Hey everyone, I have an idea for a film club movie for the month of February. A major blind spot for me is historical Black cinema, and I’d like to watch something in that category. I recently came across a book at the library called Hollywood Be Thy Name: African American Religion in American Film, 1929-1949 (2007) by Judith Weisenfeld, and it’s quite interesting (I love the play on “hallowed by thy name.”) One of the major topics of the book is “race films,” films made with black casts for black audiences (theatres were segregated back then) and often by black directors.

 

The one I’d like to pick for a film club discussion is The Blood of Jesus (1941) directed by Spencer Williams. I haven’t yet seen it, but from reading about it I know that it has several things going for it, in addition to its historical significance:

 

explicitly religious themes, which I think this group will find worthy of discussion,

 

a run time of just under an hour, so it should be easy to fit in a busy schedule, and

 

it’s on YouTube, so it will be easy to access.

 

What do you think? I’ll start a thread soon if others are interested.

 

Great idea! I'd be up for that or a similar category -film maybe, say, in April. I would try to join the discussion if you started a thread in a few weeks,  Rob.

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Back to High and Low: *spoiler alert*

I was really intrigued by that final scene in a way that strongly pulls me back to revisit it. The superposing of the faces of the 2 men (Gondo and the criminal) is striking. It makes me think of what those 2 men may actually share even in spite of the dramatic class gulf between them.

Of course we know that Gondo by this time is no longer in the rich, lofty social class that he once was. Perhaps a partial closing of this social class gap is suggested here.

Even more fascinating to ponder, though,  is the possibility that this shot suggests Gondo is not as far from the guilt and condemnation of the criminal as it may seem at first. We recall that, were Gondo to have not opted to pay a ransom for the boy's life, he may have spent a life of somehow sharing in (or at least condemning himself) the guilt of the boy's murder.

2 faces, superimposed on one another.  Both human and both not far from the tormented, guilt-wracked cries of that final scene. Ah, for the grace of God to break in.. 

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Revisited this yesterday for the first time in 20 (?) years. Kurosawa was a formative filmmaker for me in the early years of my cinephilia but I don't remember the last time I watched one of his movies.

Interestingly, all I remembered about High and Low was the first act in Gondo's apartment, and to be honest I almost turned it off 40 minutes in. That opening section is really strange. The script has no subtext. Every emotion and social dynamic is either said aloud or capital-S Symbolized by Kurosawa's No drama-like blocking of the actors.

This might say more about me than the film, but I started becoming more engaged during the scene in the police station when every team gives a report of their progress on the case. That shift from diagrammatic moral drama to dry, by-the-books police procedural is so interesting. How would you all describe the overall shape of the movie? I can't quite make sense of it. I mean, thematically there's a move from the high to the low, which ultimately questions the validity of that distinction. But the stacking of genres might be kinda genius. Or maybe not? By the end, we're in another classic Raskolnikov moment, but there's no grace to be had, only sheer terror.

Really strange movie! I think I liked it?

 

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Thanks for your comments, D. Since I nominated this film for the Top 100, I figured I should at least try to engage, but I'm struggling to stay on task work-wise when all I really want to do is camp online and talk about movies.

Two thoughts occurred to me in listening to you mention your development of taste. It's probably unavoidable for me that one of the things I like about the film is that it teaches well. Whether paired with the McBain book or not, it is familiar enough for the average undergraduate to not just be totally lost. That prompted me to think, maybe there is a reason why, looking at my own list of nominees, I chose the most accessible Kurosawa, the most accessible Bresson, the most accessible Dreyer, the most accessible Antonioni, and, heck, the most accessible Dardennes. I remember in undergrad hearing an Inter-Varsity talk where we were told that a good sermon had something for every member of the congregation, those who were new to the fold and those who had an M.Div. and those who were forty-year converts with a wealth of experience. I think instinctively, I'm wanting this list to reflect that principle as well. Maybe on some levels I fear us being too esoteric to prove (to ourselves or others) how smart we are. I think that's a valid concern, but I realized in your comment that maybe going too far the other direction--always preferring the more accessible choice--might be equally problematic. Anyhow, as to your question:
 

Quote

How would you all describe the overall shape of the movie? 

I look at the movie as an inverted Dantean trilogy, with Gondo not really having a Beatrice to guide him. Given that the original title was Heaven and Hell that doesn't seem like a stretch. Of course, heaven is more boring and didactic than hell, isn't it? I mean, who reads the Paradiso any more (I read in high school, but...)?  Of course Gondo doesn't feel totally at home in heaven, so the film scratches one of my itches in examining capitalism as the new heaven and another in depicting modern (or postmodern) man (or woman) struggling with the loss of belief. Not just the loss of his/her own belief, but the seeming absence of belief/values in the world that is being made around him. In that way, it resonates very much with me circa 2010s. 

I showed this film last fall in my World Literature class in the same semester as Calvary (which somebody, I presume Gareth, nominated), and I was struck by how they both conclude with someone who has suffered from  a terrible crime visiting the criminal in prison. The responses are very different and touch on another theme that is near to me: who we can forgive and who we can't -- and why. For all its critique of capitalism, the film reflects a more conservative ideology, I think, particularly in its refusal to accept the environmental poverty or economic injustice as an excuse for or even a mitigating factor in the face of the evil that is kidnapping. (I suppose these themes also inflect my love of Silence of the Lambs and grows out of my experiencing violent crime to a family member at a young age and not being able to think about it strictly in the abstract.

That's all for now. Maybe more later. Maybe not.

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4 hours ago, kenmorefield said:

For all its critique of capitalism, the film reflects a more conservative ideology, I think, particularly in its refusal to accept the environmental poverty or economic injustice as an excuse for or even a mitigating factor in the face of the evil that is kidnapping.

That's interesting.  I know Kurosawa identified as a Marxist in his 20s, nearly getting arrested for his affiliation (which would likely have gotten him executed at the time).  So there is this critique of economic inequality throughout his films, yet he consistently presses the point that individual willpower and autonomy carries the day on a micro level.  We see this in the dichotomous characters who are so often a part of his films:  the sexually abused girls in Red Beard (one becomes the murderous Mantis, one becomes a caregiver at the clinic) and the two WW2 vets in Stray Dog (Mifune's cop, and the gun-stealing criminal that he and Shimura chase throughout the film).  I adore High and Low, but as I recall, it is missing a character to offset the kidnapper.


To be an artist is never to avert one's eyes.
- Akira Kurosawa

https://www.patheos.com/blogs/secularcinephile/

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Thanks for adding some nuance to that Andrew.
As Doug could attest were he here, the rubric with which I ask my students to talk about ideology is rather a blunt instrument. (He was very patient with students who maybe wanted some hints about how to position Dardennes on Left-Center-Right scale even though such questions weren't what he was there to talk about.)

Also, you remind me that artists develop over time and the positions they take can be ones that later evolve. I may be leaning too hard on the Criterion commentary that speaks positions the film as a response against the the rise of of kidnapping post war and Kurosawa's revulsion at the crime. Perhaps I overstated.Or perhaps there are certain crimes that challenge us in our ideology. (I would consider myself as having an ideology--political or religious--of forgiveness and empathy, but rape, torture, or child/animal abuse provoke responses in me that make me realize by commitment to that position is not unassailable.)

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HIgh and Low

I was watching this film for class the other night, and I was struck by the fact that I had forgotten how early in the film they kid the kid back and how the manhunt actually picks up and expands after that. Perhaps this is a comment about social control mechanisms and police as agents of the state. How much of the state's resources are devoted to correcting particular injustices or crimes as opposed to other tells a bit about what the function of the police is, what the social norms that they are controlling are. 

Early in the semester we watched Daratt, a Chadian film about a young man seeking revenge on the man who killed his father during the civil war. That film begins with a radio broadcast calling for general amnesty of all war criminals. Later, he is beaten by two police/soldiers for the crime of public urination. I said at the time that living in a society where murder (depending on who you murder) gets you a pass and public urination (depending on who you are) gets you a beating can destroy your sense of that place as being just and committed to equality, no matter how much rhetoric that society's politicians use to claim that is what it's all about. 

It seemed more relevant or obvious in this viewing than ever before that the police are more interested in protecting a way of life and punishing crimes that are a challenge to the status quo. Whether that makes it more right leaning or left leaning is something I'm still questioning.

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Ken, one of the more disturbing elements of the film is that, by not arresting the kidnapper immediately, the police essentially allow him to murder the junkie. And I'm not sure exactly how Kurosawa feels about that decision. His depiction of the heroin den is so zombie-movie grotesque, I'm sincerely confused about how he wants us to feel about the people there. Is he critiquing an economy that turns people into zombies? Is he participating in that same system by depicting them as zombies? Both?

Edited by Darren H

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