High and Low (1963)

Class: Staff
Author: Miles Imhoff
Score: (4.5/5)
February 22, 2006 [Review May Contain Spoilers]

I was on the edge of my seat! High and Low is among the most suspenseful of Akira Kurosawa's films, a look at the upper and bottom tier of society and the struggles and conflicts of those caught in a deadly web of their own self-created nightmares. Another deviation from Kurosawa's long portfolio of period pieces, High and Low is set in the uneasy atmosphere of contemporary big business, and stars Toshiro Mifune as the dynamic Gondo, at first a slave to his ambitions, and then a man trying to reclaim his humanity. It is a story about a downtrodden criminal named Ginjiro Takeuchi, mocked by his own position in life, driven to madness. High and Low is an all-too-often bleak look at moral corruption on every rung of life's ladder.

Kingo Gondo of National Shoes was a shrewd businessman, deeply devoted to his work and always longing for the continued success of his livelihood. Openly challenging his fellow executives, Gondo knew that he had a key for success. He would usurp control of the company through his growing, secret, and expensive acquisition of stock. In fact, Gondo had already raised 50 million yen by borrowing against all of his assets. As he planned to send his loyal secretary Kawanishi on a mission to Osaka one night, bent on securing a majority of share with the massive sum of money, a strange phone call suddenly arrived at Gondo's house. The chilling voice on the other end of the line claimed that he had absconded with Gondo's son, Jun. Frantic to save his only son, Gondo began to record the exacting specifications for the payment of the 30 million yen ransom; when, much to everyone's utter surprise, Jun was discovered safe and sound. In fact, it was Jun's friend, the son of Gondo's chauffer, who was accidentally kidnapped. The cunning kidnapper called yet again, and despite his error, he still demanded his ridiculous ransom. Gondo was far less prone to give in this time and became much more reckless in his actions. He called the police, despite the threats against the child's life.

The police arrived undercover, and began to formulate methods to locate and capture the kidnapper. As time progressed, it became increasingly obvious that there was little that anyone could do without Gondo's full cooperation. Though Gondo continued to refuse paying the ransom, his wife and son pled with him, as did his chauffer, bitterly so. Finally, after an agonizing personal conflict between his career and the safety of another human life, Gondo relented, and he and the police followed the kidnapper's instructions. The money was procured from Gondo's bank account, and, per the agreement, flung clear off the side of a bridge, from the narrow opening in the window of a moving train. Shinichi, the chauffeur's son, was recovered to safety... but the mastermind and his accomplices sped away.

As public opinion swelled in Gondo's favor for his selfless act, the police department was frantic to uncover every shred of evidence it could find. Detectives Tokura and Taguchi scrambled to put together all the information and resources they had at their disposal to locate the criminal mastermind and retake the ransom, if only in honor of Gondo's bold and selfless sacrifice...

To put it bluntly, this movie is like Stray Dog (1949) on caffeine. This is a gripping and powerful crime-oriented drama, and it is easily among Kurosawa's most amazing works. Dramatic and unpredictable, there are so many twists and turns, and though the majority of the tension is confined to the first half of the movie, even the mild anticlimax manages to capture the audience's awe with dozens of subtle nuances and carefully woven plot devices. It is a thematic masterpiece; there are so many powerful messages about wealth, poverty, greed, addiction, envy, and pride... it is a twisted look at the modern world and the need for people to regain their humanity and selflessness.

So, how do the actors fair with the burden of carrying such a deep and thematic plot? How well do they bring to life the character traits of their respective characters? Toshiro Mifune (Kingo Gondo) is the breakaway performance of this movie, at least for the first half of the film. His character's dynamic fall and ascent to regaining his humanity is handled brilliantly, and Mifune really brings home the tragic internal conflict he continually experiences throughout the ordeal. Gondo, at first, is a character to be despised. His initial desire to save his son's life and then his total 180-degree turnaround when it is discovered that it is truly his chauffer's son who is in peril, brings home the notion that Gondo is a rather selfish character. However, it is clear that he is not staunch in his position, as he clearly wavers back and forth. Finally, he succumbs, and as the movie draws to its climax and resolution, he has become a hero in the plotscape. Tsutomu Yamazaki (Ginjiro Takeuchi), I'd have to say, is the second greatest performance of the movie, even though his dialogue is confined to the close of the film. His internal conflict is clearly visible in his emotions, the mask of unrepentant pride veiling a torment within. His marvellous expressions, such as his arrogant stares and egocentric behavior in the final confrontation, followed by his sudden burst into tears, really humanizes this very villainous role. Yutaka Sada (Gondo's chauffer) brings an air of torn humility to his performance. However, it is his emotions which reflect a deep grief in his heartbreaking role as the father of the kidnappee. His bargaining with Mifune's character greatly helps to contrast Mifune's initial character traits with those he develops as the story progresses, and makes the humble chauffer out to be very likeable in his deep devotion and love for his only son. Kyoko Kagawa (Gondo's wife, Reiko) brings a dimension of concern to her role, which, again, helps to contrast and define Mifune's character right away. Her reasoning with Mifune's character is also powerful, as it solidifies the fact that every rational person around him has turned against him for his selfish actions. As for the detectives, Tatsuya Nakadai (Chief Detective Tokura) is the central figure. Nakadai gives his character a sense of a clear direct concern and utmost priority for the safety of the boy; but conversely, he also portrays a level of empathy with Gondo's difficult decisions regarding the situation. The same is true, in all aspects save the initial empathy with Gondo's conflict, with Kenjiro Ishiyama's character (Chief Detective Toguchi). Both detectives grow to admire Gondo for finally going through with his difficult decision, and their characters' tireless search for the criminal as they continue to honor Gondo brings a great level of admiration for their characters as well. Of the prominent roles worthy of mention, there is also Tatsuya Mihashi, Jun Tazaki, Nobuo Nakamura, and Yunosuke Ito, each bringing a loathsome revulsion to their business-oriented characters through their utter callousness and lack of humanity in regards to the grim situation. Tatsuya Mihashi's character is likely the most detestable, as he is involved directly with the situation, and only changes his position after he double-crosses Gondo professionally.

The cinematography is pretty crisp here, as the use of a wide variety of scenery works to great effect, creating an excellent amount of visual diversity in this film. The scene where Sada's character drives his son along the prospective path of the bandits is one such example, taking into consideration all the views and angles along the way. Near the conclusion of the film, the dank, dilapidated, lower depths of Tokyo work to create a vivid atmosphere as well, although clearly in a far less appealing fashion. Kurosawa yet again chooses a black and white medium for this film, but I'm mentioning this (which I wouldn't normally do) for a specific reason. He actually adds some color amidst the black and white (something that seems, to me at least, to be revolutionary in cinema). To elaborate, time is spent early in the movie developing the idea that if the briefcase that holds the money is burned; a chemical inside will release pink smoke into the atmosphere. Then, at perhaps the time when it seems as though the criminal is furthest from their grasp, Jun and Shinichi notice the pink smoke from across town, and the plot is able to shift into the final aspect of the film: the analysis of the criminal mastermind. The pink smoke rising from the smokestacks is actually pink on film, and this addition of color is clearly added to connote a milestone in the movie.

While the visuals manage to be a plus, the music is a mixed bag. The soundtrack is primarily one of silence... which brilliantly unnerves the audience and adds to the gripping suspense. However, whenever there is a scene that chalks up a victory for the "good guys", a success theme plays that is far too distracting. It doesn't flow well at all, but the existence of any music whatsoever does mildly alleviate the stress of the previous scenes. Other than that, there really isn't much of anything left in the soundtrack. The relative lack of music all around does add to the unnerving realism; however, the success theme really should have been downplayed a little.

One of Kurosawa's greatest triumphs of the 1960's, the heavy drama of High and Low is certainly a great in Japanese cinema, and cinema as a whole. Packed with suspense and an endearing look into the hearts of people coming to terms with the struggles of the modern world, High and Low makes for a fantastic viewing experience, and it leaves a lasting, thought-provoking impression on the viewer. It is truly a cinematic treat, and surely worthy of purchase.