Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low (1963) sees a return to a contemporaneous urban Japan, a transition from the feudal period examined in many of his films in the previous decade, such as Seven Samurai (1954), Throne of Blood (1957), The Hidden Fortress (1958), and the one-two punch of Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962). Yet, many of the social themes explored in those pictures – such as the class structure and the generational divide – are once again fixated upon in a more modern light. The title “High and Low” is translated from the Japanese “Tengoku to Jigoku,” which literally means “Heaven and Hell.” The heavens and hells depicted Kurosawa’s film range from the figurative and eerily metaphorical to the (nearly) literal and disturbingly real.
High and Low is essentially a story about a really good man going through a really rough time in his life. I was reminded of the narrative from the Book of Job in the Old Testament of the Hebrew Bible. Job was a man of considerable wealth, but also a man of God, described as “blameless” and “upright.” God allowed Satan to wreak havoc (or should I say “raise hell?”) in the life of Job, so as to test his loyalty and faithfulness. In High and Low, the Job-like protagonist is Kingo Gondo (Toshirô Mifune), a rich man who lives in a beautiful house in the hills. He is a businessman who cares deeply about his work and craft. “This is who I am. My work is a part of me. I’d be as good as dead without it,” Gondo says at one point. Still, he also believes in honor and respect. He cares about people. But, he may look past some of the broader ills of a capitalistic society that – whether he consciously recognizes it or not – he perpetuates by living at the top of the chain. In the valley just below, there are slums and shacks, with the poorest of poor. Drugs have infiltrated the communities in this gutter, and lost souls wander around seeking meaning and mere survival in their everyday existence. Clearly within their field of vision is Gondo’s marvelous place of dwelling, with its pristine architecture and wall-to-wall windows looking down on them. This is the literal manifestation of the “highs and lows” of the class system. (Bong Joon-Ho’s 2019 masterpiece and Best Picture winner Parasite comes to mind when looking at these physical visuals as well as the social commentaries).
A perfect storm of crises converge in Gondo’s life as his goodness and integrity are tested. He has just recently made a massive financial gamble that is at risk of either making or breaking his future. And, his son has been kidnapped and is being held for a $30 million ransom. But wait – the kidnapper took the wrong kid. Rather than snatching Gondo’s son, Jun (Toshio Egi), the assailant accidentally took Shinichi (Masahiki Shimazu), who is the son of Gondo’s chauffeur, Aoki (Yutaka Sada). The mysterious enemy realizes his mistake fairly quickly, but still demands the ransom to be paid in full. Otherwise, the child dies. Paying the $30 million would surely leave Gondo and his family in a state of financial devastation for the rest of their lives, but the alternative is not desirable either. Gondo’s pride is at a crossroads. He wrestles with these warring obligations to his family and to the life of a purely innocent child. His good nature as a human is put to the test.
Meanwhile, as Gondo is faced with horrible internal conflict on an emotional and psychological level, the film around him transforms into a police procedural, with additional elements highlighting the impact of journalism. Kurosawa is going back to the likes of his detective thriller Stray Dog (1949) and journalism drama Scandal (1950). The script from Hideo Oguni, Ryûzô Kikushima, Eijirô Hisaita, and Kurosawa himself (and loosely adapted from Ed McBain’s novel King’s Ransom) tapers to a razor-sharp point at this juncture in the film. By the time we have reached the halfway mark of the runtime, young Shinichi has already been rescued. (Initially, Gondo appeared reluctant to make the decision to let go of his fortune for the life of a child – or at least, this was his persona on the surface. However, based on anecdotal evidence from many other moments in the film, I think he always knew what his choice would be. He is, after all, a good man). The suspense shifts the question away from whether or not the child will survive, and pivots to the drama identifying and bringing the guilty party to justice. The efficiency of the investigative department as they work to untangle the complicated web of evildoing is portrayed with such a coherent and intelligible articulation. These guys are professionals. They know exactly what their goal is, and how to go about achieving that goal – from interviewing the most obscure of potential witnesses, to plotting out every intricate detail of local geography and architecture, to asking the local papers to run a false story. (Michael Mann’s filmography is oozing with the influence of Kurosawa, but the expertise and singular vision of the characters in High and Low in particular seem to be primary points of emphasis). This same story in the hands of a lesser filmmaker may have devolved into boring technical jargon and inaccessible vernacular for the common audience member, but Kurosawa and Co. understand precisely how to thread the needle of respecting the viewer’s intelligence without veering too far off into a specific niche that would fly over the head of even the most in-tune general audiences. Anybody who loves movies and pays attention to how they unfold can watch and appreciate High and Low – but you have to actually concentrate on the film. Kurosawa’s era was obviously well before the advent of cell phone technology, but in today’s terms – High and Low is not a film to “have on in the background.” Without flaunting itself as pretentious, it is almost self-aware of its status as cinema to be respected and valued.
The sheer power in the filmmaking from cinematography duo Asakazu Nakai (Stray Dog, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood) and Takao Saitô (Sanjuro) has a kinetic, reactionary feel to it. The way the camera moves through the room while all of these snappy conversations and dialogue-heavy exchanges are going down puts you right in the heart of the action. Kurosawa’s direction and editing here (yes, he loves to edit his own films, and does a dang good job at it, too) heightens the intensity and electricity of the atmosphere. And speaking of the “action” – while High and Low is not populated by the elaborate action sequences of Kurosawa’s samurai flicks, the dialogue in itself is enough to satisfy those seeking thrills and excitement. It crackles and pops with a rough-hewn edge, but also flows and moves like a smooth wave. Yep, Quentin Tarantino was definitely taking notes here.
Consider this quote: “I’d rather be told the cruel truth than be fed gentle lies.” So as to refrain from spoilers, I will not go deep into the contextual detail of this line within the narrative of the film – but, when you regard its weight in the moment, it takes on an even more potent function in the thematic storytelling. In this moment, Gondo literally comes face-to-face with the disconcerting realities of the disease of capitalism. This is where the highs and lows, the mountains and valleys, and the heavens and hells of it all come to a head. Gondo finally sees just how much the benefits of his lavish lifestyle have come at the expense of others’ livelihoods. It is even implied that Gondo comes from a background of poverty himself, much earlier in his life – but once he reached the top, he never took the time to look back or look around. He earned his keep, but he did not reflect on how everything else rippled about the pond and trickled down the stream. This epiphany for Gondo comes in the final scene of the film, just before the credits roll. Thus, we are not shown how he would take this newfound awareness and apply it to his place in life and the world – but it is made abundantly clear that he is a good man who wants nothing but the best for people, whatever personal sacrifice it may require of him, big or small. If you asked me, I think he would end up making a few changes to the way he lived his life moving forward.
I would go so far as to say that at the core of practically every Kurosawa film I have studied is one simple message: Be a good person. Whether you are a samurai warrior in the 16th century or a relatively ordinary joe in the 20th, simply do good and be good. Spread love and light, through your words, actions, and thoughts, seen or unseen. And party on, dudes. (Wait, that last part might have been from Bill and Ted – but the sentiment remains the same and true).