High and Low (1963)

Akira Kurosawa | 2hr 23min

At first glance, the executive meeting over a giant Japanese shoe company buyout might seem to have little to do with the kidnapping, mix-up, and deadly ultimatum directed at its most influential player. The nameless voice on the other end of the telephone sounds more motivated by resentment towards Kingo Gondo than any desire to specifically ruin his business plans. That it is the son of Gondo’s chauffeur who is abducted rather than his actual child is a complete mistake on the kidnapper’s part, though not one that deters him any less. If Gondo refuses to pay up the 30,000 yen he intends to use for his business deal and lets the boy die, then his reputation will be destroyed, and the operation could still be counted a success. For the wealthy businessman and Akira Kurosawa alike, this is only partially a dilemma of ethics. It soon becomes very apparent that concerns of class, privilege, and status are far more central to this agonising predicament.

That High and Low is so perfectly captivating throughout its two and a half hour run time should be no surprise to those who are familiar with Kurosawa’s ability to construct tight, gripping narratives with brilliant stylistic invention. That this procedural film holds up to the incredibly high standard set by Seven Samurai from nine years earlier is far more likely to catch even his most ardent admirers off-guard. This is a transcendent achievement of storytelling, constantly moving forward at a momentum which never wastes so much as a line of dialogue. Kurosawa’s inspired structure has a significant role to play in this too. For almost the entire first hour, we are trapped inside Gondo’s modernist mansion as he slowly unravels, before spinning out into the streets, alleys, and slums of Yokohama where detectives methodically hunt down the mysterious culprit. High and Low may start small, but by the end it feels as if we have touched every corner of this sprawling city wracked with severe social disparity.

High and Low is right next to Seven Samurai and Rashomon in terms of blocking. Kurosawa turns bodies at all angles across his mise-en-scène, but he also emphasises the height in the frame between characters.
Great location scouting for many scenes throughout High and Low once we leave the confinement of Gondo’s living room. Superb form drawn in this divide too.

Even with its relatively contained opening act though, Kurosawa is already laying out a microcosm of urban inequality. Along two sides of Gondo’s living room are giant windows which open onto expansive metropolitan views, situating his residence on a hill far above the squalor below. Clearly Bong Joon-ho was inspired by this use of elevation and architecture to illustrate the social standings of his characters in Parasite, though Kurosawa continues to draw it even further into his mise-en-scene by way of his ensemble blocking.

Vast windows looking down on the city below, and drawing rigid lines in the set design between characters.

Much like the work of his contemporaries Michelangelo Antonioni and Luchino Visconti, his camera’s deep focus is essential to these astonishing compositions of bodies staggered right into the background. Actors are turned at all angles throughout this clean, modern space, their connections slowly eroding and visually divided by the harsh lines of the mansion’s walls, doorways, and furniture. The only time we ever find some unity between them is in those shots of heads anxiously gathered around the telephone during the kidnapper’s calls, forcing Gondo into the centre as he oscillates between fury and trepidation.

Disconnection and unity drawn in a pair of images. You can read the room simply by the way Kurosawa arranges his actors – not unlike Visconti or Antonioni.

The fiery presence that Toshirô Mifune brought to Kurosawa’s earlier films is all but gone here as the tortured businessman, replaced with an intensive focus and excruciating indecision. Much like his elevated house, he towers over many of his fellow cast members with a powerful screen presence, dominating the foreground while the small, cowering chauffeur played by Yutaka Sada grovels at his feet. After all, it was his son that was kidnapped, though one wouldn’t guess it from the way he is constantly pushed to the edge of the frame, into the background, and outside of entire scenes. He may be suffering most than anyone else, but as a poor, working-class man, he also lacks the agency that makes Gondo such a fascinating character, and who in turn imbues this narrative with such riveting tension. For the first magnificent hour of High and Low, this decision ultimately comes down to his own willingness to give up his privilege for a young boy’s life.

Toshiro Mifune gives a performance very distant from his fiery persona in Seven Samurai or Rashomon. Gondo is a complicated figure, neither a hero like the press might paint him, nor a villain like the kidnapper believes. He is also front and centre of this film for the first hour, before disappearing and returning at the end.

Thankfully, he chooses the far more stomachable option. He may be ruined financially, and the big company buyout he was planning may not go ahead, but in the public eye he is a hero. Little do they know how thin of a knife’s edge he was sitting on. Conversely, his fellow business executives who oust him from the company for his financial losses are swiftly vilified by the media, and accused of punishing an honourable man for his righteous actions.

The reach and influence of the press proves to be particularly large in major incidents like these which can so easily be simplified down to good and bad people, but this is not a dichotomy Kurosawa has much interest in. Even these journalists who only seem driven to generate the most sensational headline end up serving a noble purpose, cooperating with the police to plant a false story in the hope of drawing out the kidnapper. This is a complex investigation with many moving parts, even if Gondo serves little purpose in it anymore. Now without wealth or power, his agency is effectively taken away like the chauffeur before him, sinking him into the distant background of a narrative that he can no longer affect in any meaningful way.

Radiating faces and bodies out like spokes from a centre, focusing everything inward on an intensive investigation.

With Mifune almost entirely out of the picture, it is time for the police officers to take the lead in this ensemble piece, leaving behind the spacious manor and descending to the streets below. If there is a slight drop in the film’s visual splendour at this point, it is only because virtually every shot up until now has been so perfectly rendered – by any other standard, the procedural section of this narrative features the sort of urban location shooting and staging that stands among the finest of cinema history.

About an hour into the film, Kurosawa exchanges Gondo’s small living room set for an entire city of location shooting. Slums, streets, clubs, and alleys become an urban jungle for these detectives to navigate.

Particularly notable is the enormous formal contrast between the clean sophistication of the room we have just spent most of our time in against Yokohama’s ragged shanty towns, where alley walls squeeze inwards and hanging laundry obstructs frames. From down here, Kurosawa catches sight of Gondo’s mansion through the kidnapper’s ramshackle home, almost like a reverse shot of the view from his living room. “That house gets on your nerves. As if it’s looking down at us,” one police officer gripes, and from this new perspective it is easy to sympathise. Class resentment runs thick in the city’s deepest pits.

The view from the kidnapper’s slum window is virtually a reverse shot of the view from Gondo’s living room. It’s hard not to think of Parasite now when we see this elevated mansion sitting on a hill – a symbol of status.

Much like these detectives, Kurosawa understands the need for patience and precision to catch a criminal, teasing out and paying off every single plot beat along the way. Early on, it is mentioned that a trap has been left in the kidnapper’s money bag which will let off pink smoke when burnt, and one might easily forget this was ever mentioned if it wasn’t for a giant reveal later on in the film’s most striking composition. Gathering in front of Gondo’s giant living room window, the heads of various police officers line the foreground, while a distant chimney spills out the sole trace of colour in this black-and-white film – a plume of pink, incriminating smoke.

A stand-out shot in a film full of them – pink, incriminating smoke rising from an industrial chimney, offering Kurosawa’s black-and-white a photography a sole touch of colour, and marking this as a crucial point in the narrative.

The puzzle pieces only come together faster from here. The kidnapped boy recalls landmarks from where he was kept, the ether used to knock him unconscious is traced to a local hospital, and a pair of dead bodies reveal the culprit’s betrayal of his own accomplices. The covert tailing of the prime suspect through an ambient jazz club makes for another superbly constructed sequence too, as Kurosawa hangs us in the grip of a largely wordless cat-and-mouse pursuit. For now, the target of their suspicion does not realise he is being watched, but neither can we read his cold, stoic face behind his giant pair of dark, reflective sunglasses. As we follow him into the rundown ‘Dope Alley’ outside, Kurosawa mutates High and Low into a zombie film for a brief time, crowding the cops with homeless drug addicts itching for their next hit. If Gondo’s mansion sits high in the clouds as a heavenly paradise, then these are the sordid pits of hell, co-existing in the same city.

The cat-and-mouse pursuit of the kidnapper through the jazz club and dope alley makes for brilliant visual storytelling, often leaving dialogue out altogether.

Such harsh depictions of class inequality are essential to our eventual understanding of the kidnapper’s motivations. Ginjirô is his name, a young medical student who claims that his hate of Gondo has been his sole reason for living. Even as he sits in prison after being caught, he taunts the broken, disenchanted businessman with a façade of easy indifference, claiming that he is neither regretful for his actions nor scared of his impending execution. It is plain to see the lie from his incontrollable shaking, and even more evident when he breaks down in complete mortal terror. In the glass that separates both men, the reflection of Gondo’s weary expression is faintly imprinted over Ginjirô’s manic face, composing an image of two halves – both ends of civilization, broken by its own social and economic disparity.

The law may have triumphed over corruption, and yet it is just like Kurosawa to find such soul-destroying cynicism in this result, recognising the impossibility of solving the greater issue at hand. The formal divisions that run through his mise-en-scene and gripping narrative structure in High and Low painstakingly reveal a civilisation that has eroded the connections between its citizens, forcing them into bitter games of twisted revenge, and only ever leaving behind miserable losers when the dust has finally settled.

A faint reflection of Gondo’s face in the glass between him and the kidnapper. A sad, cynical ending typical of Kurosawa’s nihilism.

High and Low is currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.


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