Criterion Corner: High and Low (#24)

I’ve seen seven or eight films by Akira Kurosawa, but other than Ikiru and Dreams, the latter of which I saw about twenty years ago and don’t remember particularly well, it’s all been the Jidaigeki films, i.e. period dramas set during the Edo period (more or less) and featuring samurai, ronin and the like. Even Ikiru, which isn’t clearly set in the past, feels like it is about the past to some extent, as it is the story of an old man looking back at his life.

High and Low immediately makes for a striking contrast: it is set in the present day in a big city, its protagonists are businessmen and police detectives. More than that, while the film was released in 1963, there are many elements that would easily translate into our present day, and while High and Low comments on class in specifically Japanese contexts, much of its commentary could work equally well outside Japan. All of this comes together to make High and Low feel modern, in terms of the story, characters and the filmmaking itself – even almost sixty years after its release.

Kurosawa often looked outside Japan for his plots, to Russia, England (or, more specifically, to Shakespeare) and the United States. High and Low is based on a thriller by Ed McBain (AKA Evan Hunter, who also wrote the script for Hitchcock’s The Birds). Kurosawa’s adaptation is about a wealthy executive, Kingo Gondo (Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune), whose business is under attack from his business partners. As he risks his entire wealth in order to take full control of his company, he receives a phone call from someone claiming to have kidnapped his young son – but, it turns out, the kidnapper actually abducted the boy’s playmate Shinichi, the son of Gondo’s chauffeur Aoki (Yutaka Sada). Will Gondo pay the multi-million yen ransom for the boy, ruining himself?

High and Low begins with an intense chamber piece that amps up the claustrophobia of the situation. We never leave the house where Gondo and his family lives, and the cameras almost exclusively focus on his living room. The first hour or so of the film could easily play on a stage, and while this kind of theatrical mise en scène doesn’t always work on film, Kurosawa uses it to fantastic effect, first filling it with the trio of business partners threatening to oust Gondo, then later with Gondo, his wife and son, the chauffeur who is frightened that he will lose his own child, and the various detectives wire-tapping Gondo’s phone and hoping to either locate the kidnapper or at least gather new information about his identity and whereabouts from the conversations. Literally as much as metaphorically, there is ever less space left as the world closes in on Gondo.

Kurosawa is masterful in the composition and blocking of his widescreen scenes, showing us different individuals and groups with their different micro-dramas. As we would on a stage, we keep looking from Gondo, whose financial survival is at stake, to his wife, appealing to his humanity, to the police officers who understand the stakes better than anyone else, to Aoki, alternately begging his boss to save his son and apologising profusely for his imposition. (While a similar dynamic would work in a western adaptation of the material, the casting of Mifune especially adds a subtext of feudal Japanese class relations – but Mifune’s executive is by no means to the manor born himself, adding an interesting wrinkle.) For me, the first act of High and Low was reminiscent of Sidney Lumet’s 12 Angry Men, another film that combines the strengths of cinema and the stage to great effect, creating a pressure-cooker environment in which the characters inevitably clash.

Just when I thought that all of High and Low would be this claustrophobic chamber piece, however, Kurosawa opens up his action, taking Gondo and the police onto a train as they follow the kidnapper’s demands, hoping to get Shinichi back – and they do, roughly at the film’s halfway mark. Kurosawa uses this pivotal setpiece, which uses entirely different cinematic means from the first act but is staged and filmed just as effectively, to mark High and Low‘s switch into a very different mode and even genre. The first half of the film is a thriller, driven as much by the crime that has happened as it is by the psychology of its various characters – but the second half drops the theatrical aspect that dominated the film up to this point, and the film becomes a police procedural, not too dissimilar from, say, Fritz Lang’s M and David Fincher’s Zodiac. Kurosawa clearly is fascinated by the methodical work of the police, and he depicts its minutiae with a keen eye. We’re watching professionals at work, and these people are good at what they do, but they’re not the hard-bitten heroes of so many cop movies. They’re systematic, conscientious, they suffer setbacks – such as when they find the kidnapper’s accomplices, but they’re decidedly not in a state where they could answer any questions – but persist nonetheless. There is a quiet heroism in this, but it’s not the highly individualistic heroism of many American films. There is a beautiful, quietly thrilling scene where two of the detectives follow one of their leads with patient perseverance while Aoki takes his son on a drive to try and trigger his memories, tracking down the individual stations Shinichi remembers from his abduction, and slowly but surely these two groups converge on the same location. These aren’t the thrills of most of the cop movies I’ve seen, but Kurosawa makes such scenes immensely satisfying to watch, not least because the drama isn’t in the least manipulative. The excitement stems from regular people doing a job they’re good at, and succeeding through patience and determination – again, I find myself reminded of Zodiac (though that film’s investigation ends up spanning decades, as patience and determination spiral into obsession and futility).

High and Low again changes its tack in its last half hour, and that’s where I have to admit it lost me somewhat – though that may also be due in part to me having been very tired when I watched it. The detectives zero in on a suspect, and their pursuit of him is shown almost in real time, even if the dramatic necessity of the extended sequence isn’t entirely clear to me. The man, Ginjiro Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a medical intern, is fed incorrect information via the newspapers that lead him to plan the death of his accomplices (who, the audience knows, are already dead at this point). He is shown trying to acquire uncut heroin, then he tests the strength of the drug by getting a drug addict to overdose on it, and finally he makes his way to where he expects his accomplices to be, while police officers tail him. In isolation, all of these scenes are effective and provide some striking images, from the chaotic dancing club where he gets the drugs to the back alley where all the addicts hang out, but the film’s pace comes almost to a standstill as we wait for his arrest to happen. Kurosawa stages the club where the kidnapper gets his heroin as a frantic visual puzzle, Where’s Wally? on amphetamines, and the alley where the drug addicts hang out waiting for their next fix or for the release of death is ghostly and atmospheric (if perhaps not the best fit in its nightmarishness for the film’s styles up to that point), but to me these scenes felt like a holding pattern, at a point where I wanted the story to drive towards its conclusion.

For most of the film, Kurosawa’s presentation of the kidnapper and his crimes is quite clear in where he positions himself, probably even more so after Shinichi is freed. Ginjiro kills repeatedly to cover his tracks, and most likely he would have killed the child too, as he threatened to do. Kurosawa himself commented that he felt such cases were not prosecuted with enough severity in Japan at the time. Yet, after Ginjiro is apprehended, we get an epilogue that returns to the stage play-like feel of the beginning: the kidnapper asks to see Gondo, who has lost his company and wealth and is working as a regular employee at a shoe company, and the two men face one another through a semi-reflective pane of glass. While Gondo remains mostly silent, Ginjiro first claims to feel no remorse, then has an emotional breakdown. Kurosawa doesn’t explain Ginjiro’s actions away, he doesn’t excuse the man, but it is impossible not to feel some pity for a man torn up by his life and his actions, as High and Low brings the issues of social class that have been threaded throughout the film to a sharp point. The man says, “I’m not afraid of death. I don’t care if I go to hell. My life has been hell since the day I was born… I’m not interested in self-analysis. I do know my room was so cold in winter and so hot in summer I couldn’t sleep. Your house looked like heaven, high up there. That’s how I began to hate you.” The film clearly judges the crimes, but just like it doesn’t present its protagonist as conventional heroes, it doesn’t reduce Ginjiro to a simplistic villain. His anguish – less at being imprisoned and facing the death penalty than at life itself – is an image that remained with me after the film has ended.

Verdict: I didn’t know much about High and Low other than its basic premise going in. I didn’t expect a film this strikingly modern, and I definitely didn’t expect the film to have these parts that are distinct in style, approach and, basically, genre. Watching this one, it’s clear why it’s a part of the Criterion Collection – this is a strong, stylistically surprising entry in the filmography of one of the greats. I’ve watched films on Criterion where I could see the significance to the history of film but the appeal was primarily, even purely intellectual. Not so with High and Low. There were moments where I literally gasped at the confidence and audacity of the artistry and craftsmanship. I will want to rewatch it at some point when I’ve had more sleep, to see if I’ll still feel that the pacing is perhaps a bit off towards the end of the film – and even if it is, it doesn’t diminish Kurosawa’s achievement. I’ve liked all the Criterion films I’ve watched since starting this feature, but High and Low may well be my favourite.

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