Director: Akira Kurosawa
Producer: Ryûzô Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa
Writer: Hideo Oguni, Ryûzô Kikushima, Eljirô Hisaita, & Akira Kurosawa
Cast: Toshirô Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyôko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Isao Kimura
Studio: Toho Company
Why I DVRed This: As big a fan of classic movies as I am, I have some embarrassing gaps. Example: Prior to High and Low, I actually had never seen a Kurosawa film. I really don’t know why I hadn’t… I guess I just never had one presented to me in a way that required almost no work. They’re not often on TV (since subtitled black-and-white Japanese movies don’t tend to get the ratings that Just One of the Guys must have gotten on Comedy Central fifteen years ago), and I never motivated myself to see any of his films at any of the repertory theaters. So, when TCM offered a month’s worth of Kurosawa films for his birthday, I decided to rectify my Kurosawa gap.
How I picked High and Low over the other films offered, I can’t exactly say. Many of the other films TCM offered were (of course) samurai films, and I just couldn’t see myself being that interested in any of them (I know…). High and Low was a film I’d never heard of, and it’s plot sounded fun, so, I figured, why not? After I DVRed it, I also saw that it was listed on the 1000 Greatest Films list over at They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They? (it’s listed as the sixth best Kurosawa film behind the usual suspects—Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Ikiru, Ran, Throne of Blood), so I guess it was a good choice too… (And spoiler alert, it was!).
Presentation on TCM: As stated above, High and Low was shown as part of TCM’s celebration of Akira Kurosawa’s 100th birthday. On Tuesdays in March, TCM showed his best films, and High and Low was among the choices. TCM offered no special introduction or presentation for the film, though.
Synopsis: As National Shoe Company executive Kingo Gondo (Mifune) makes a bold plan to sell everything he has in order to wrest control of the company from rival executives, his son is kidnapped for thirty million yen. Only the kidnapper has made a mistake and kidnapped his chauffer’s son! Gondo has to choose between saving the child and saving his financial future, while the police hunt for the kidnapper in the hellscape of Yokohama’s Chinatown.
Analysis (contains spoilers): This film is absolutely terrific. It is immensely and diversely suspenseful, melding a cornucopia of genres and moods. High and Low is one part corporate intrigue, one part moral dilemma, (at least) one part taut police procedural, and one part examination of social problems. Structurally, High and Low is like two mini-movies. The first half follows the kidnapping and culminates with a thrilling money drop sequence; the second half follows the police investigation/hunt for the kidnapper and culminates with a longer and more thrilling chase through the underworld of Yokohama. Indeed, the film’s title provides descriptions of these worlds, the world of high society and low life (the film’s Japanese title, Tengoku to jigoku, is closer in translation to Heaven and Hell, and that makes even more sense), and a clue to the structural conceit of two separate though related actions.
That structure makes for a unique viewing experience. Like Psycho, the film changes genres midway through, and yet, again as in Psycho, the viewer barely notices the jolt—everything seams together perfectly. However, High and Low is unlike Psycho in that the genre splicing provides a more layered look at one character, rather than killing the protagonist off. One of the most rewarding parts of viewing High and Low is that the two parts of the film offer wildly juxtaposed perceptions of Gondo—this is mostly interesting because of just how little we actually see Gondo in the second half. He moves from being the protagonist to being more of a background figure, yet, as a background figure, he seems far more likable. The Gondo of the first half is a cruel figure who lords over his kingdom through meanness and machinations. He has been surreptitiously buying stock to take over the company he works for, and he tells his son that winning is all that matters. He treats everyone around him with a certain scorn, even the police who have come to help him after his chauffeur’s son has been kidnapped. The police tell him he cannot open his curtains, and he seems almost trapped by this—his house sits atop a hill and overlooks all of Yokohama and the harbor. This is his kingdom, and he is pained by the fact that he cannot look out at it and lord over it. For the Gondo of the first half of the film, power is everything, and he is pained at losing it.
However, Gondo is transformed from heinous to heroic after making the decision to do the right thing and pay the kidnapper. He becomes gentler and softer at home, even being almost subservient to the detectives investigating the case. To the people of Japan, he becomes a cause célèbre and a national hero—the detectives even ask the newspaper reporters to get the word out that Gondo is being screwed over by the National Shoe Company—and though he loses everything, he seems heroic to the viewer too. There is a terrific scene in which he mows his lawn, his shirt stained with sweat, while the detectives leave the house. He has been reduced to doing his own work—he has lost his job at National Shoes and is soon to lose his property—but for now he is determined to keep up the lawn he once worked so hard to be able to afford. There is a quiet courage and pride in the scene, and it encapsulates the new Gondo perfectly, a Gondo that even the detectives admit to now “being all right,” despite not liking him at first.
There’s another point about Gondo that is important—he is rich at the beginning of the film, but he was not always rich. He managed to make his fortune at a time when Japan was experiencing a boom, but he was not born with a silver spoon in his mouth, as his wife was. Thus, the reveal, that the kidnapper has kidnapped the child because of class-based jealousy, is a bit ironic. The kidnapper has chosen to kidnap not the son of a rich king but the son of a self-made man (and, of course, it’s doubly ironic that he actually kidnaps a chauffeur’s son). It is the wife’s money the kidnapper is primarily stealing, and, remember, even the beginning-of-the-film Gondo wants primarily to make quality shoes for everyone to wear, not poor-made shoes to rip off the working class. Gondo is really not a bad guy at all, even though he has learned to be gruff and cruel in business dealings. He contains layers.
Contrast that with the hipster medical intern and would-be criminal mastermind. There is virtually nothing redeemable about Ginjirō Takeuchi (Yamazaki)—he kidnaps a child, stores him at a house rented by heroin addicts he once treated as a doctor, kills them with very pure heroin, and then begs Gondo to hate him at film’s end. But Gondo won’t. The intern tells him that he is “not interested in self-analysis” as he explains the motives for his crime: that his “room was so cold in winter and so hot in summer” that he “couldn’t sleep” and that Gondo’s “house looked like heaven, high up there.” That, he tells Gondo, is how he “began to hate [Gondo].”
Indeed, his motivation is little more than jealousy and class resentment. The film, however, does a good job of making us at least partially sympathetic to that idea. Gondo, remember, is an asshole in the first half of the film. Even the detectives think so, and they also seem to resent the house. While investigating phones the kidnapper might have used, one police officer says, “The kidnapper’s right. That house gets on your nerves. As if it’s looking down at us.” However, by the time we have Ginjirō’s motive announced, Gondo has been redeemed and the motive seems cruel. And Ginjirō’s actions have only appeared worse—no class resentment could be rectified by him—and, of course, we’ve seen his actual life—it’s not all that bad. His apartment is tiny and his world wild (filled with drunken American sailors, junkies, and mixed-race couples), but he’s a cool guy who could probably go out and have a good time in those cool clubs he leads detectives through later. Sure, the heroin den he enters looks awful, but what kind of non-heroin addict would enter it? The world of Yokohama has a high and a low, but so does life itself! While we might be partial to Ginjirō’s motives at one point, who can justify the crime? And who could possibly want to see the benevolent Gondo of the film’s end suffer?
Kurosawa does a terrific job, thus, of making us change allegiances throughout the film. But on top of plot points and character analysis, the film also offers wonderful shots and scenes. Most scenes make use of depth staging to great effect. While the tense chase through the hipster hell of lower Yokohama features more interesting and varied shot composition, I was personally fascinated by the depth Kurosawa managed to get in Gondo’s house. Everything is widescreen and flat, even though the scenes in the house are all, well, in the house—they don’t need to be widescreen in order for us to see everything. But the staging offers us a form of character development: It gives us distance between characters so that, even in tight spaces, the characters are separated by huge distances on screen. Additionally, the characters also often stand in circles with their backs to each other. Thus, we have a spacing that shows disagreement and discord between what everyone wants Gondo to do and what he wants to do. Yet, the house also offers an interesting setting, as everything is modernist—straight lines are everywhere—in the furniture, in the windows, in bridge walkways—and when the characters stand in front of those backdrops, we see that everyone is still connected, even with immense distance between them. And these horizontal visuals also contrast with the vertical goals of the kidnapping plot—we always see layers of straight lines that remind us what level people are on.
Kurosawa also makes great use of the moving camera. These movements help show us what to look at of course, but the depth staging also gives us choices. We can watch the faces of others as the chauffeur bows deeply to Gondo to beg him to save his son. Or we can watch the detectives’ faces as they listen to the kidnapper talk. That’s an interesting scene too: Kurosawa cuts on motion to show the first phone call from the kidnapper after the police are there—we see Gondo answer the phone in one room then see the detectives listen to him answer the phone in the other. This gives us the choice of perspectives and implies a stacked existence to the filmic structure (as is, again, hinted at by the title).
So much layering exists in High and Low, and most composed shots are quite crowded and active. This is especially true of the parts of the film that take place in public, such as the train scene and the chase through Yokohama’s Chinatown. Each of these shots are intricately composed with deep focus, allowing us to see the elements of narrative and realness added to each of them. For example, there are shots in the beginning of the movie that show detectives in the foreground and Gondo sitting alone in the dark—this shows two perspectives of the same story. Or the shot over the shoulder of Ginjirō in the bar—we see his reflection in the mirror and also that of the heroin dealer, but the mirror also bounces back the reflection from his sunglasses, suggesting that he is deep within a flawed vantage point from which he can’t ever see reality.
Other shots show us the real world Ginjirō cannot see, and it’s a testament to Kurosawa’s directing that so many different actions and stagings do not seem staged at all. Indeed, it’s amazing to see every actor in every shot having seemingly different stage directions—it composes a verisimilitude that suggests the story and the main action (e.g., the police pursuit of the hipster kidnapper on his heroin buy) exist in a real world that goes on in spite of the tension of our focal point. But of course everything is composed too, especially the “hipster” chase scene. The intern/kidnapper wears cool shades, navigates cool clubs (like in a Godard movie), and even is arrested while a cool version of the Elvis song “It’s Now or Never” plays, a hipster Virgil circling the nine layers of his personal hellscape, a setting that should seem fake but comes across as authentic. What a cool dude, too!
In the end, though, his coolness gets him nowhere. Gondo, the all-around better man, tells him he bears no ill will while Ginjirō begs to be hated. His crime seems to have been for naught, as he can’t even make a powerful man lose his cool. The hipster Ginjirō may have made good points about class structure, but in the end he is both morally and socially low. While Gondo and Ginjirō are finally in the same horizontal shot (and connected by a straight line again), a vertical wall still separates them. While Gondo is socially low again, his morals remain high, and he is not truly as low as Ginjirō has ever been or ever will be. More important, we are comfortable in assuming he will once again have his mansion on the hill, while Ginjirō writhes in torment at Gondo’s coolness while proclaiming he is not afraid of Hell. In a way, then, since Gondo may end up losing nothing, he might want to thank Ginjirō, for his caper turned Gondo’s moral compass around and gave him back a soul fit to occupy the heaven on high of the film’s Japanese and English titles.
Should I Have DVRed This On TCM: Yes, this was a delight. I mostly focused on the relationship between Gondo and Ginjirō in my analysis above, but it’s worth mentioning how much fun the police procedural aspects of the film are. It’s rare to see a film that spends so much time covering the work of police building a case, but High and Low does just that. We see the police announce their investigatory strategies and we see them doing the grunt work of police work, the likes of which I’ve only seen on The Wire (and not even there that often). High and Low is a rare movie that seems like it should be so disjointed with multiple mini-movies happening at once, but with a director as skilled as Kurosawa, it all works. Watching High and Low makes me realize just how much better all crime stories and police movies could be. Kurosawa managed to imbue into a simple crime movie questions of class, morality, and power, while also making a film that is fun to watch.
Incidentally, and completely as a last aside, the movie was so successful that it actually inspired a wave of kidnapping throughout Japan. That’s a (morbid) testament to its quality.