High and Low – its original Japanese title translated as Heaven and Hell – is a 1963 crime drama directed by master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Based on King’s Ransom, one of American author Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct series of crime novels, Kurosawa effortlessly shifted the setting from the US to Japan, adding multiple layers and socio-political undercurrents, including a beautiful observation on the state of the country post-World War II, and the class struggle within; all of which maintains both resonance and relevance even a half a Century on. Expertly splitting the narrative into two distinct components – kidnap and ransom suspense thriller, and police procedural – Kurosawa once again proved his capabilities as an expert auteur on any subject that he put his mind to.
Kingo Gondo is a wealthy executive caught in a power struggle over the future of his company, and, to this end, he has secretly planned to buy out the majority of shares so that he may take control, mortgaging everything he owns in order to be able to raise the money required. Unfortunately, on the very evening that he is due to execute his plan, he receives a telephone call, only to be told that his son has been kidnapped and that, in order to get him back alive, he is going to have to hand over the exact sum that he was going to use to buy the majority share interest.
High and Low is a masterful fusion of two distinct but eminently compatible crime sub-genres, taking the original source novel’s basic premise, and making some drastic changes to key elements of the plot (most notably in relation to the character of Gondo and the decisions that he makes); focussing initially – and in great depth – on the kidnap and ransom elements, exploring the answers sought to the conundrum of the certain loss of the business versus the probable loss of the child; before shifting viewpoints to that of the police investigation, and exploring – again, in great detail – the extensive legwork that has to be done on this kind of case in order to systematically track down the culprit. Documentary-like in content, yet overtly cinematic in style, the split-narrative structure works exceptionally well, almost providing the viewer with not one, but two distinct films.
Of course the main star of the show – at least for the first half – is long-term Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune (the two had worked together on almost all of the director’s best movies: from Seven Samurai to Yojimbo; from Hidden Fortress to Red Beard), who plays the wealthy businessman Kingo Gondo. Commonly playing a sword-wielding samurai, Mifune has always brought a depth of character to his parts, exuding charisma and charming wit, whilst also displaying emotional range and inner conflict; his characters always much more cerebral than you would expect. Here he brings many of these same elements to the fore, although conjured up within a very different animal indeed, his wealthy executive brimming with more pride and prominence than any of his samurai incarnations, even if the cunning planning element is common to both. And whilst Gondo could have easily ended up being nothing more than the unlikeable business mogul depicted in the novel, both Kurosawa and Mifune sought to forge a far more sympathetic creature: a man who is torn between his very livelihood – everything he has worked so hard from his tough childhood to create – and the precious life of the child at hand. In order to avoid betraying some key plot points, it is necessary to skim over some of the elements that work so well with this character but, suffice to say, the plotting here is far from just as simple as trading his business for the life of his son.
Former antagonist from both of the Kurosawa/Mifune Sanjuro movies, Tatsuya Nakadai plays a very different character here as well; as Tokura, the chief detective in the investigation, he is initially unimpressed by Gondo’s stature and seeming truculence – the class factor coming into play – and yet, as the course of the narrative progresses, we see both him and the other detectives come to respect and even admire Gondo, and actually despise the vulture-like business partners who are poised ready to capitalise on Gondo’s misfortune. Then, as the narrative shifts to focus on the police investigation, Nakadai now takes lead, and presents us with a very honest, realistic depiction of a detective – flawed, and not always correct in either his assumptions or his deductions, his investigation of the case is peppered with trips down blind alleys and dead ends, and goes far from smoothly. I'm not sure that the movie works quite as well under the lead of Nakadai, and you eventually start to miss Mifune's very presence, but the tonal change is still remarkably effective, with Nakadai's far-from-perfect, and at times unsure-of-himself detective making for an interesting alternative to the dominant, assured, Gondo. It’s also worth noting Kenjiro Ishiyama, who plays a bald, bullet-headed veteran detective of an even more working-class background than Tokura – and who consequently despises Gondo’s rich arrogance even more at the outset; as well as Gondo’s wife, Kyoko Kagawa, who is given a surprising amount of prominence for an actress in a Kurosawa film, and who often comes across as the alter-ego to Lady MacBeth, in effect, counterpointing the extended first act with the plight of Macbeth – i.e. Gondo could have gone down that same morally irredeemable path, had her influence been more sinister and ambitious.
The cast are actually universally great, bringing forth exactly what is required in the requisite roles, under the expect management of Kurosawa himself – who has been acclaimed across the years as a very gentle, yet instructive director, whose technique of ‘suggesting’ alternative forms of delivery to his actors at the rehearsal stage (which is played out complete with the full camera array – as if the final film was being shot) has been lauded by anybody who has ever worked with him. He knows exactly what he wants from each of the performers and knows exactly how to get it out of them; with Mifune notably the exception – the one man who always seemed to already know what Kurosawa required, with very little instruction required by the director (this is one of the many reasons that they worked together for so long).
Behind the camera, Kurosawa had many different techniques on offer to present this movie with some noteworthy style – and, aside from the multi-layered, complex, and daring split-narrative structure, it’s the magnificently fluid cinematography of the piece which stands out even to this day. The first half of the movie basically takes place almost entirely in one large room (the very size of the room itself revealing just how rich this businessman was – as space is so precious in Japan), in which Kurosawa observes the characters using a series of long shots and displaying a wonderous command of the widescreen scope (which was not yet commonplace back then); cleverly, he utilised two different cameras – both pointed at diagonal lines through the central staging area (the large room in Gendo's house), and positioned so that they could make an X pattern if rolled in towards the ‘stage’. And that’s exactly what this first half reminds you of – a clever stage play, with just a few key players, and only a couple of telephone calls from the kidnapper to break up (and accelerate) the inner turmoil that these characters go through. By using these cross-shooting cameras, and interchanging seamlessly between them in the editing suite, Kurosawa was able to create some truly magnificent shots – using many clever techniques to highlight important characters during the moments when the focus shifts onto them, or heighten the tension as the deadline looms. During one pivotal moment, Kurosawa glides his camera from right to left, across the back of the room in an arc-like fashion, as the characters in the scene all enter into the frame from left to right; expertly choreographing both their movements and those of the cameras in such a way that they almost seem to be in some kind of dramatic ballet sequence, their final resting position being one of perfect symmetry with them all seated in an arrow form, and Kingo Gondo focussed in the centre. This is just one example of the many moments of sheer perfection and absolute mastery of the camera – and cast – which Kurosawa displays in this movie. As the narrative shifts, mid-film, we get a brief but stunning sequence shot onboard a moving train, before we take to the streets in pursuit of the criminal – and now the film is far from restricted or stage-play like in format; the sprawling suburbs and hazy slums coming to life with their seemingly endless breadth, and becoming the ultimate playground for Kurosawa to slowly-but-surely crescendo to his unexpected finale.
Beneath the stunningly fluid camerawork and thrilling, organic narrative structure; beyond the richly painted characters and universally flawless performances, the film also has the kind of multi-layered depth which was rare back then, and is still pretty hard to find even now. Aside from the obvious implications of both the Western title, and the original Japanese translation – the former highlighting the lower-class envy and obsession with upper-class wealth and prominence; the latter adding layers of morality into the bargain: you could be poor but in heaven, and rich but in hell (particularly if you had a child’s death on your conscience) – the film expertly deconstructs the class structure in Post World War II Japan, looking at the rich, the poor, and those in between, not only in black and white terms, but also with heavy shades of grey. The moral integrity of Gondo, despite the obvious ramifications on his entire life’s work, is cleverly juxtaposed with the behaviour of his seeming peers – who are purely in it for the money; and then further counterpointed with both the hard-working policemen, and the lower-echelon antagonist, whose clever scheming to ruin Gondo is obliquely painted as envious obsession, but whose own completely amoral behaviour is, eventually, shown to be nothing short of evil incarnate.
These social observations are very telling – and very relevant – in our current economic climate as well. Within us all is the imperative to seek and gain more; to be richer and thus to envy those who are rich – and yet, as has been shown recently, it is often just the lack of moral compass that leads many to actually act immorally and illegally on this imperative; and often with very little understanding of what we actually covet. We want to get rich, but we don’t want to work to do so (admittedly, this is not always out of choice, although many would prefer the easy, ‘lottery’ route to hard labour) – and, more importantly, we fail to acknowledge the lengths that another individual may have gone to in order to get where they are – as the character of Gondo here exemplifies. I’m sure there are plenty of archetypal fat cat business men in the world, who don’t deserve our sympathy, and who reap the rewards of preying on more vulnerable, harder-working individuals purely because they are in a controlling position to do so, but there are also some who deserve everything that they have worked so hard to get. Yes, nobody likes the fact that the banks were bailed out, and that individuals are left to fend for themselves in an economically unstable society where some jobs pay less than the very benefits that you could seek out from the State. It’s not a fair world that we live in, but it still takes a distinct lack in moral fortitude to reduce yourself to simply taking what does not belong to you. High and Low explored this nearly fifty years ago – and it goes to show just how little society has evolved in all that time.
Whether you read all of this into it, or merely regard it as a flipside to the coin of MacBeth; a standout police procedural, and a taut stage-play-esque kidnap and ransom thriller all rolled into one; it is clear that High and Low has multiple layers of depth and resonance, and a timelessness within which allows it to be relevant even to this day. Be you a fan of the works of Kurosawa, or just a fan of great cinema, this masterpiece comes highly recommended.
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