Akira Kurosawa | High and Low

Japanese life is portrayed as a mix of sometimes clashing cultures, with characters each finding their own ways to reconcile Japanese traditions with modern Western values.


I love Akira Kurosawa’s historical epics, but I’ve always had a special fondness for his films set in contemporary Japan. The Bad Sleep Well, Stray Dog, and the like have everything The Seven Samurai, Kagemusha, and his other large-scale films do—strong characters, brilliant staging, intriguing storylines—while also offering a window into life in postwar Japan.

High and Low (1963) was a revelation when I first saw it, and it remains my all-time favorite Kurosawa film. It’s a film of dichotomies, beginning with the Japanese title, Tongoku to Jigoku, which translates literally as “Heaven and Hell.” Then there’s the screenplay, based on a novel by American crime writer Ed McBain, but set in contemporary Yokohama. Japanese life is portrayed as a mix of sometimes clashing cultures, with characters each finding their own ways to reconcile Japanese traditions with modern Western values. Finally, there’s the clashing structure of the film itself: The first half is an intense chamber drama, the second a police procedural, with the two halves joined by a tense action sequence set on a moving train.

The “hell” of the title is evident in the opening credits, which run over views of the industrial port of Yokohama. The air is thick with smoke, shipping cranes tower over the harbor, and low wooden buildings are crammed together in dense urban neighborhoods. In contrast, the first half of the film is shot almost entirely in “heaven,” as embodied by the spacious, air-conditioned home of wealthy industrialist Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), set high on a hill overlooking the cramped city below.

AC-Kurosawa-smThe scene in Gondo’s living room is a blend of East and West; the men wear Western clothing (a cardigan for Gondo, conservative suits for the others), but Gondo’s wife Reiko (Kyoko Kagawa) wears a kimono. Reiko will later be revealed as the spokesperson for traditional values like caring for others, while Gondo hews to the “kill or be killed” ethos of the modern business world. The living room is furnished with couches and coffee tables, but set closer to the floor than would be typical in an American household, a compromise between traditional Japanese “floor culture” and the typical height of Western furniture.

The men discuss the future direction of their shoe company: Should it continue to make expensive, quality women’s shoes, or switch to producing cheap, fashionable shoes that will wear out more quickly? (Yes, another dichotomy—once you start noticing them, they’re everywhere in this film.) Gondo argues for the former, while not revealing that he plans to gain control of the company through a leveraged buyout.

Their business talk is interrupted by a more immediate problem: a phone call announcing that Gondo’s son Jun has been kidnapped. When the boy appears a moment later, it’s clear the kidnapper made a mistake, seizing not Jun but Shinichi, the son of Gondo’s longtime chauffeur. It makes no difference; the kidnapper still demands that Gondo pay the ransom of 30 million yen, a sum that will ruin him.

There’s an ethical dilemma for you: You might well give all you have to save your own child, but how much would you sacrifice for someone else’s? Spoiler alert: Gondo does the right thing, although it means his takeover attempt will fail and his reputation will be destroyed. He doesn’t come easily to this decision; Gondo may not be wielding a sword, but he is as much a warrior as any of Mifune’s samurai characters, and he really hates to lose.

The two halves of High and Low are linked by a tense, six-minute sequence set on the Kodama bullet train. Following the explicit instructions of the kidnappers, Gondo brings the ransom money in two thin briefcases (ornately decorated to make them easier to identify, and booby-trapped with dye and odorant that will be released if the kidnapper tries to destroy them). As instructed by a call to the buffet car phone booth, he throws the briefcases out the washroom window while the train is in motion, and Shinichi is returned unharmed.

The second half of High and Low follows the detectives as they roam through some less glamorous parts of Yokohama, piecing together whatever bits of information they can glean about the kidnapper. This journey takes them through busy shopping streets, to fish markets and tobacco shops, to a trashburner’s hut, to dive bars patronized by foreign sailors and prostitutes, and to a hellish alley where listless drug addicts congregate. We meet the kidnapper, Takeuchi (Tsutomo Yamazaki), who lives in a tiny room in a ramshackle slum, but Kurosawa doesn’t do much to develop him as a character; in fact, he barely has any dialogue until the final scene of the film.

High and Low was shot in Tohoscope, with a 2:35:1 ratio, giving Kurosawa a chance to show off his mastery of horizontal composition. The camera work in the interior shots is wonderfully fluid, and the characters group themselves into complex compositions arranged as carefully as the figures in a baroque painting. The outdoor shots, in contrast, have an almost documentary feel, creating a portrait of daily life in postwar Japan that includes ordinary people as well as those at the top and bottom of the economic ladder.

And here’s a fun fact: Japanese law at the time did not classify the kind of crime portrayed in High and Low—kidnap a child and demand payment for his return from a wealthy public figure not related to the child—as either extortion or kidnapping for ransom; hence, such a kidnapper faced relatively minor consequences if captured. The law was changed after the release of this film. | Sarah Boslaugh

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