2 Hrs., 23 Mins.
High and Low May 9, 2018
igh and Low’s (1963) 143-minute running time gives it the chance to breathe, even if its characters are rarely provided such an opportunity themselves. For the film’s first hour, it is a strained kidnapping thriller, a one-setting morality tale where no decision is a clear-cut good one. Then it becomes a knotty police procedural, replete with pulse-pounding foot chases and leads that go nowhere.
For Akira Kurosawa, the film’s co-writer and director, High and
Low is something of an exercise. A tense, straightforward suspense thriller, it is less an essential part of his rich filmography and more a coalescence of his strengths, playing up to his masterful, decanted storytelling abilities and his predisposition to convincingly showcase characters struggling with muddied morality.
Loosely based upon King Ransom, a 1959 novel by Ed McBain, High and Low is centered around Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), a wealthy executive in the midst of a stressful period in his life, professionally and, eventually, personally.
At work, he seems on the verge of demotion. Although he is the president of National Shoes, the footwear company by which he’s been employed for a number of years, his colleagues seem bent on stripping him of his authority. They want to start catering to the impulse market and lower the quality of their products to increase profit, while Gondo is unyielding in his wanting to keep things the way they are: sturdy and high quality.
We soon learn that Gondo, well-aware of his unpopularity, has mapped out an audacious plan to assert his power. Behind the backs of his egocentric peers, he has set up a leveraged buyout that will ultimately give him the financial upper-hand, making it impossible for his co-workers to work against his quality-over-quantity business plan. Perhaps recklessly, he has mortgaged everything he has; his current financial instability, he assures himself, won’t be all too big a disadvantage in a few days.
Just as he’s about to put his plan in motion, however, Gondo receives a phone call from an unknown man who claims to have kidnapped his young son, Jun. Initially, the assertion seems bogus: Shortly after Gondo hangs up, Jun, having been playing outside at the time of the call, comes trotting in through the front door. But then the truth reveals itself: the mouth-breathing abductor has accidentally nabbed the son of the family’s chauffeur. Only a steep ransom will free him.
Such presents a moral dilemma. If Gondo pays the ransom, he’ll be financially ruined; his buyout scheme has left him too insecure to support such a cost. But if Gondo does not pay the ransom, he’ll be morally dilipitated, forever tormented by his guilt.
The situation inevitably welcomes in police presence, and from there does High and Low turn into a fairly conventional procedural, concerned less with Gondo’s decision and more with the person, or persons, behind the kidnapping plot. Our minds, perhaps carved by dozens of similarly structured movies that feature some sort of climactic plot twist or double cross, immediately move toward assumptions that Gondo’s colleagues figured out what their president was up to and planned their own version of vengeance. Or that maybe Gondo is diabolical, and the kidnapping scheme was his own doing and part of a larger plot to be revealed later.
But Kurosawa is more concerned with the moral provocations of the plot, going with a reveal colored more by the plausible than the sensational. The finale at first seems underinflated and disappointing, if only because we’re so used to melodramatics when faced with this type of story. But then we come to appreciate what Kurosawa has done here: created a morally ambiguous, hyperilligent character study cum police thriller whose many stimulations come from its characters and its ideas, not necessarily its genre-specific set pieces.
It is a movie defined by contrasts and middle-grounds. What makes High and Low so much stronger than the majority of its closest cinematic counterparts has to do with the way its central moral dilemma incurs a ripple effect that broadens its impact. In addition to the movie’s title showcasing a prominent disparity, high and low, Gondo’s ultimate decision will either be good or bad, with nuances in both clouding things up. But there are other polarities in the movie underlined too: rich (Gondo and co.) and poor (the low-lives revealed to be behind the kidnapping), hot (Japan’s climate) and cold (the bourgeoisie’s air conditioning). We also notice that the affluent live in hilly communities, whereas middle-and-lower-class persons can only afford to live in the central city’s lower parts.
Notice, though, that there are few black-and-white, good/bad characters. Everyone focused upon here is contradictory and bear some hamartics, especially Mifune’s Gondo and Tatsuya Nakadai’s Inspector Tokura, who are inherently upright but are nevertheless unopposed to speeding up the process of getting ahead. We’re fascinated by them. And we’re fascinated by Kurosawa’s presentation of it all, which is perceptive and stylish without being peskily intellectual or artistically showy.
High and Low would be the last noir film the filmmaker would make. He’d go on to lower his profile and focus more on jidaigekis, samurai epics, and comedy-dramas after a couple debacles (the Tora! Tora! Tora! misfire of 1970 being a major one.) Because it more or less marked the end of his decades-long ambition to make about a movie per year, I’d like to think of High and Low as something of a nexus between the two Kurosawas: the prolific, youthful one and the cautious, challenging one he’d become later. Time has clarified that the films Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and Ran (1985) are Kurosawa’s inarguable masterpieces. That High and Low is considered minor only contributes to the director’s legacy as a maestro – most filmmakers could only imagine making a movie as powerful as this one. A