This is an excellent film by any criteria. It shows Kurosawa Akira at the height of his powers during the phase when he could produce ‘entertainment pictures’ which also offered another dimension of artistic achievement. High and Low is based on the crime fiction novel by Ed McBain (Evan Hunter). ‘McBain’ was well known for his police procedurals (Hunter wrote non-genre novels, several of which became Hollywood movies and also other genre novels under different pseudonyms and screenplays under the Hunter name). King’s Ransom is one of the famous ’87th Precinct’ novels. It details the investigation of a kidnapping case. Kurosawa adapted various Western literary sources including Shakespeare, Gorky and Dostoyevsky, but I don’t think he adapted any other genre novels by Western writers (unless you count the claims that Yojimbo is based on a Dashiell Hammett story).
Plot outline (some spoilers)
Kingo Gondo is a business executive – someone who has worked his way up to Production Manager in a Japanese shoe company. The narrative opens on the night when other executives from the company have come to his house to persuade him to join them in ousting the company President and ‘modernise’ the company’s product line. Gondo (Mifune Toshiro) is in some ways an old-fashioned craftsman who doesn’t want to make cheap fashion shoes. He refuses to join the plot and when the men have gone he reveals to his aide that he has been secretly buying shares and if he does the final deal he will control the company himself.
Gondo lives in a modern house on top of a hill overlooking the port city of Yokohama. Soon after his meeting he is shocked to receive a phone call from a kidnapper who claims to have taken his son and is demanding a huge ransom of ¥30 million. But the kidnapper has made a mistake – he has taken the wrong boy and he actually has the son of Gondo’s chauffeur. Nevertheless he wants his money. The police are called – led by Inspector Tokura (Nakadai Tatsuya). Gondo is faced with a terrible dilemma – does he pay the ransom to free the boy and lose all the money he has gambled on the takeover of the company? (He has mortgaged the house to get enough funds.) Or does he risk the boy being killed and save his business future?
The original title of the Japanese film translates as Heaven and Hell, which seems very apt. To the kidnapper, Gondo’s house, the rich man’s house on the top of the hill seems to be represented as heaven. In the poorer apartments below life is certainly more hellish, especially during the oppressive heat and humidity in Summer. Kurosawa’s adaptation (co-written with several collaborators) has several clever tricks up its sleeve. The actual investigation is expertly paced and features a fascinating train sequence for the drop-off of the money and some excellent police department scenes. This is quality entertainment, but what makes the film great art is the application of two familiar Kurosawa strengths. The first is the excellent playing of the lead roles with Mifune in an unusual role in which he ‘humanises’ Gondo the businessman. The second is the decision to film most of the first section of the narrative in static tableaux of the Gondo family and the police in Gondo’s house – emphasised by the brilliant use of the CinemaScope frame as in the composition above. This is almost like a stage play with characters holding their positions and sometimes looking or staring off-screen. This is then contrasted by the much busier (and more ‘realist’) scenes of the investigation shot on location in Yokohama and on the railway.
What I think that this stylistic difference achieves is to establish a kind of distance from the events and to invite an analysis of the story in metaphorical terms. This seems like a modernist device. (A conclusion strengthened by the single use of colour in what is otherwise a black and white film at a crucial point in the investigation.) It would seem that Kurosawa certainly achieved his aim of stirring up a critical storm (if that was his intention). Some critics have criticised the film as ideologically conservative. It is certainly true that one of the platforms for the police investigation is the presentation of their work as helping Gondo’s family to protect the boy and pointedly helping the rich to stay safe. The Inspector even says at one point that he would understand if Gondo refused to pay – because he would be risking all. The critics’ disquiet is heightened by the fact that the kidnapper also faces the death penalty when he kills his accomplices and that the narrative almost seems to endorse his capture in order that he be executed (the police don’t do much to prevent a further murder). Can this be the ‘liberal’ Kurosawa of earlier films?
But it’s not as simple as that. Kurosawa undercuts the straightforward ‘support for the establishment’ message, mainly through Mifune’s performance as Gondo who first suffers a business setback and then rebuilds his career. He is embarrassed by the begging that his chauffeur performs pleading for help with his son and he is deceived by the aide he had trusted. If anything, Kurosawa critiques contemporary capitalism as he did in the earlier The Bad Sleep Well (1960). At the end of the film, Gondo meets the kidnapper twice. First he unknowingly meets the man on the street and then finally is summoned to meet the now condemned man in prison. But the kidnapper never explains his motives. He is not contrite and Gondo is left puzzled. I think Kurosawa is asking us to consider what the story is about. Who or what is to blame for this kind of criminal action?
On the down side, Kurosawa makes little use of Mrs Gondo (Kagawa Kyuko) apart from some lines of dialogue and the contrast offered by her costume in the first section of the film (traditional Japanese) and in the second (Western).
Yoshimoto Mitsuhiro offers a long and detailed analysis of the film which I won’t summarise here except to note that he refers to the discourse of ‘urban geography’ – how the Japanese city looks in 1963, relating it to ‘looking’ as a general activity (several clues come from sketches of his experiences made by the kidnapped boy and the police use photography in interesting ways). The suggestion is that there is a metaphor for changing national identity at work here in the new ways of looking at society – although Kurosawa doesn’t seem convinced of a coherent new identity being formed.
I watched the BFI Region 2 DVD of the film (which is only available on 16mm film in the UK). I hope we eventually get to see a 35mm print. I understand that Martin Scorsese is executive producing a possible Hollywood remake. This is the kind of film you suspect Scorsese would admire. It is reported to be being written by Chris Rock – sounds interesting!
Nice clip from the film here: