High and Low/Tengoku to jigoku (1963 Japan 143 mins)
Source: ACMI Collections Prod Co: Toho Prod: Ryozu Kikushima, Tomayuki Tanaka Dir: Akira Kurosawa Scr: Eijiro Hisaita, Ryozu Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni, based on the novel King’s Ransom by Ed McBain Phot: Asakazu Nakia, Tako Saito Prod Des: Yoshiro Muraki Mus: Masaru Sato
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyoko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Isao Kimura, Kenjiro Ishiyama, Takeshi Kato
Analysing any film by Akira Kurosawa is a joy. The sense of care, placement and thought lying behind every shot is an unspoken guarantee that nothing on screen is accidental. The most popular Asian filmmaker in the West, and one of the most popular in Japan, Kurosawa’s funeral in 1998 was attended by over 30,000 people. High and Low – though it received only middling reviews in the Western press on its release – has since gained a strong critical following. Scholars regard the film as classic Kurosawa, humanist, artistic and also quite masculine.
The story itself is based on a 1959 novel, King’s Ransom, by Ed McBain (real name Evan Hunter). McBain’s 87th Precinct series was popular in both novel form and on television, where an episode based on King’s Ransom was shown in 1962 (Kurosawa didn’t see it.) High and Low stays reasonably close to the story of kidnapping, ransom and murder with only one major change near the end.
Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) is an executive at a large company: National Shoes. The film opens on a clandestine meeting of the board that he is hosting in his lounge room. Plans are underway to oust the old chairman and start selling poorly made shoes, but Gondo is having none of it. Furious, arrogant and smug, he refuses to lower the quality of the product, hinting at a secret that will put him in control of the company. After the meeting, he receives a telephone call demanding 30 million yen for the return of his son. What follows is split into two halves (the titular high and low), the first taking place in Gondo’s lounge as a team of police try to outmanoeuvre the kidnapper without making their presence known, while Gondo is torn by an ethical dilemma. The second half – compared to the dramatic, stagy, feel of the first – is more of a police procedural, detailing how the Yokohama force tracks down the kidnapper.
Right from the start, Kurosawa plays with the binary contained in his title (in Japanese, the film was actually called Tengoku to jigoku: Heaven and Hell). Gondo’s house sits atop a large hill, it is white, air-conditioned, affluent and comfortable. The seedy Yokohama backstreets that the cops travel in the second half, however, are radically different. Hot and crowded, dirty and salacious, there is a touch of Dante’s inferno to the lurid, sweaty picture Kurosawa paints. Nowhere does this become more apparent than in a drug den cops are forced to visit. Pale and wraith-like, the addicts are rendered as mindless zombies; truly lost souls. The clean, talkative environment of Gondo’s house couldn’t be any more different. The lounge room – with its panoramic views of the city – seems almost hermetically sealed for the duration of the film. The soundscape is clean – almost crystal clear; the only exception is when an open door lets the murky noise of the city intrude. Contrast is extreme, not only highs and lows, but also blacks and whites, silence and shouting. Kurosawa also uses some truly dynamic editing – breaking the 180-degree line and forcing the viewer to constantly reorient – in this section.
The stage-like feeling is not only because of the dialogue-heavy script, but also because of the number of actors involved. Favouring a profusion of long shots, Kurosawa frames his protagonists – most usually Gondo – with the remainder of the cast. The result is a stunning series of images, perfectly balanced, with each character frozen in silence whilst one or two rage.
The film is bifurcated by an action sequence on a train. Fast editing, close-ups, noise and music now abound. There is a new, frenetic quality present. Amazingly, this four-minute sequence not only takes place in real-time, but was also filmed that way. Every passenger on the train is an extra, and Kurosawa had six camera operators scrambling after the cast. It is at this point we descend into the low; the scummy backstreets of Yokohama. The stolid investigative ability of the police takes them all over the city in pursuit of the “maniac”. Aside from the muddied, dirty background, we are supremely aware of the heat. Every shirt is plastered to its wearer’s chest, fans abound and the number of people on screen – already large – blooms to encompass shots of 20 or more, all expertly – beautifully – positioned.
This heat can be read as a Hellish characteristic, and also a motif for the descent of society. This was a strong theme in Kurosawa’s work; the arbitrary, oft-times cruel world and how a man could retain humanity in that. The binary of Gondo and Takeuchi, the kidnapper, makes this clear. Ostensibly, they are both from the same, impoverished background, but where Gondo has worked hard, made ethical, strong choices and become a success, Takeuchi is a bitter failure.
The final sequence of the film, where Gondo’s face is reflected over Takeuchi’s (and vice versa) illustrates this dichotomy. Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto intimates here that Kurosawa is in fact undermining the binary (1). Really, these overlapping images seem to say, there is not so great a difference between these two men, between black and white, Heaven and Hell. This subtle modulation was sadly lost on the original Western critics of High and Low – despite the fact it was Japan’s highest grossing film of 1963. Noël Burch’s summation is sadly all too typical: “There is much misery among us, but our police force is excellent” (2).
To some extent, he was right. Kurosawa has stated that the film was an indictment of the leniency kidnapping sentences attracted in Japan. Ironically, however, the film was actually responsible for a rise in the number of kidnappings. Kurosawa himself ended up playing a part in this phenomenon, forced to assume the role of Gondo when someone threatened to blow-up a bridge unless he paid them (3).
The film also stands as an excellent instance of the “westernisation” that Kurosawa was commonly accused of. In some ways quintessentially Japanese, the story is nonetheless adapted from an American novel, with a noirish score for the Hell sequences and the influence of French policiers undeniable. But relegating this film to the back lots of genre would be a mistake. Mifune’s towering performance and Kurosawa’s dynamic, bold camera make High and Low worthy of critical favour. The penultimate film Kurosawa and Mifune would make together, it stands as a testament to their partnership, and also a statement of a formidable ability, both in front of and behind the camera.
- Mitsuhiro Yoshimoto, Kurosawa: Film Studies and Japanese Cinema, Duke University Press, Durham, 2000, p. 303.
- Noël Burch, To the Distant Observer: Form and Meaning in the Japanese Cinema, Scholar Press, London, 1979, p. 320.
- Stuart Galbraith, The Emperor and The Wolf, Faber and Faber, London, 2002, p. 361.