DAILY FILM DOSE: A Daily Film Appreciation and Review Blog: High and Low

Wednesday 10 August 2011

High and Low

High and Low (1963) dir. Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiru Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyôko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Isao Kimura


By Alan Bacchus

This is my favourite Kurosawa film, without question. Perhaps I appreciate it so much because it falls outside the feudal period – a Samurai picture. Here, it’s the present, and Mr. Kurosawa executes the procedural crime thriller to end all procedurals. High and Low is more than just an exercise in style. Kurosawa expertly plugs distinctly Japanese themes of honour, pride and the class system that has been in existence since the feudal period into Ed McBain’s American crime novel (the original source material).

Toshiro Mifune plays Kingo Gondo, a ruthless businessman who is introduced along with his fellow company directors arranging pieces on a chess board of sorts to engineer a hostile takeover of their shoe company ‘National Shoes’. When Gondo doesn’t comply with the other directors’ demands his colleagues storm out of the house sowing the seeds of corporate warfare. Later that night, Gondo receives an anonymous phone call demanding a ransom for his kidnapped son. Coincidence?

That set-up would be dramatic enough, but Kurosawa twists the scenario to create an even more complex problem. Soon after Gondo agrees to pay up, his son shows up at the house, which means it was his friend, the son of Gondo’s limo driver, that was the kidnap victim. Now Gondo is put into an even tighter vice. The ransom money is enough to ruin him. Does he sacrifice this for another man? The ethical question is difficult enough, but as a business owner, what about the public opinion against Gondo if he doesn’t pay up?

Meanwhile, the cops are on the case – remarkably thorough and thoughtful cops, mind you. They’re cops that can sleuth out and analyze the details as good as anyone in CSI or a Michael Mann film, but remarkably decent human beings with impeccable bedside manner. The Chief Detective Tokura’s devotion to serving Gondo is as engaging as the procedural compilation of the evidence behind the crime.

This relationship is key to serving Kurosawa’s theme and defining this procedural genre he’s practically inventing. In the best genre films, we discover character and theme through action, in this case, the work assigned to Tokura. As Tokura and his team meticulously pour over every detail, however insignificant or minute, we come to appreciate the work ethic and pride he has for his job. Gondo echoes the same attitude when wrestling with the prospect of losing his job. For Tokura (and for much of Japanese society), he is defined by his work, the loss of which is worse than death.

The setting and location supports another key theme – class. For half of the picture we’re exclusively in Gondo’s magnificent house perched atop a hill in Tokyo, which looks down upon the rest of the town. It’s a literal representation of Gondo's superiority over the lower classes. The specific Japanese class definitions are expressed chiefly through Gondo’s relationship with the limo driver, who despite losing his son, is obliged by the nature of his job and position in society to feel sympathy for his employee before himself. It’s enlightening but truly sad to see the poor man grovel and plead for the money to save his son, a sacrifice we know is most painful.

This is the guts of this wonderfully rich and layered potboiler. And if there wasn’t enough depth on the page, Kurosawa’s cinematic instincts elevate the work even higher. I can’t think of another film that uses the widescreen frame better than High and Low. Shot in true anamorphic 2:35:1 ratio, Kurosawa populates the scenes by maximizing every inch of the frame. In almost every scene we see a dozen or more characters working or reacting to the events in play. Even in the opening scenes in Gondo’s contained hilltop house we see Tokura’s men dotted in the foreground and background. In the magnificent ‘evidence’ scene when Tokura solicits the results of the investigation there are more than 20 people in every shot, the effect of which supports the theme of work and provides terrific visual compositions. Even when there are 24 people or more, Kurosawa’s mise-en-scene knows how to draw our attention to his intended subject. He never needs to frame a close-up or reaction shot.

High and Low is available in magnificently pristine high definition Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection. It was Kurosawa’s second last B&W film (before Red Beard) and was at the tail end of his remarkable association with Toshiro Mifune. It showcases a great filmmaker at the pinnacle of his career in absolute command of the medium, a film accessible to all audiences, Japanese or American, mainstream or art house.

High and Low is available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection.

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