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While we observe cops tracking down a kidnapper, Kurosawa is busy investigating the web of moral culpability that links the haves and have-nots.
We are gluttons for the police procedural. We love to watch detectives in mid-hunt—it satisfies our need for “quest” stories as well as our lust for eavesdropping. And as Evelyn Waugh said, “The criminal classes . . . have always had a certain fascination.” But even if you’ve watched countless episodes of The Wire or Law & Order, Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low will be a revelation. The Japanese director has somehow made a “film of ideas” (usually an entertainment-killing proposition) without skimping on drama or suspense. While we observe a small army of detectives and beat cops tracking down a kidnapper, Kurosawa is busy investigating the complex web of moral culpability that links society’s haves and have-nots.
The story, based on one of American pulp-novelist Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels, concerns Mr. Gondo (played by Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune), a rich man forced to pay a ransom to save the life of his chauffeur’s abducted son. The catch? The ransom is so large that paying it will bankrupt him.
“High and Low” is a sloppy translation of the Japanese title “Heaven and Hell.” Kurosawa’s film is about the opposing worlds of wealth and squalor—the kidnapper could see Gondo’s mansion from his window, and had become obsessed with punishing Gondo for his conspicuous affluence. The ransom demand causes Gondo’s idyllic life (his “Heaven”) to unravel.
We get about an hour of a housebound Mifune, dealing with cops, business partners, his family, the kidnapped boy’s father, and (on the phone) the kidnapper. Kurosawa has pulled off some cinematic alchemy here, taking a story that could have run aground in static dialogue scenes, and transforming it into high drama that is both riveting and psychologically layered (a la Dostoevsky).
Kurosawa had used widescreen for years in samurai epics with panoramic action of horses, swords, and mayhem. Here, the director uses the widescreen camera to sidestep traditional editing, where we would typically see a character talking, and then cut to another character’s reaction. Instead, we get to see reactions while the character speaks, as Kurosawa takes us into the minds of multiple characters at once. It’s fascinating to watch Mifune cycle through many moods onscreen, as the other actors take turns interacting with him and reacting to the unfolding drama. The result is a wide-ranging discussion of moral complexity, accomplished largely through visual means.
If “morally conflicted shoe tycoon” doesn’t sound like an interesting character to you, wait until you see Mifune play him
Toshiro Mifune dominates the first half as the morally conflicted shoe tycoon Mr. Gondo. And if “morally conflicted shoe tycoon” doesn’t sound like an interesting character to you, wait until you see Mifune play him. Mifune’s samurai persona was famously parodied by John Belushi on SNL; Kurosawa’s films are peppered with Mifune characters boiling over into explosive rage. But while it’s fun to watch him snap in an action film, it turns out it’s even more satisfying to see Mifune blow his top at the duplicitous behavior of a corporate weasel.
Following an hour of coiled tension, High and Low shifts abruptly into high gear with a four-minute scene on a bullet train that belongs on the top shelf of action sequences. After the dramatic quarantine of the first half, we finally get to leave the house and jump into a very different film, as the police procedural takes over. With the boy now safe, an army of cops goes to work tracking down the criminal. This is the “Hell” section of the film, where the manhunt winds through the dark Tokyo underworld, veering from raucous nightlife to the grim desperation of strung-out junkies. Kurosawa’s camera takes us inside the investigation and through the hell of the kidnapper’s bleak existence, as the process gradually shifts from solving a puzzle to laying the trap.
Kurosawa’s hero was Dostoevsky, and High and Low blends crackerjack entertainment with an investigation of character and morality rivaling one of that great writer’s stories. Using his trademark technical virtuosity, Kurosawa has accomplished something rare and very Trunkworthy: he’s snuck sophistication into what feels like a popcorn movie.