Kurosawa Centenary: High and Low

[March 23 1910, legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa was born. To celebrate the centennial of his life, his prolific contributions to the world of cinema, and immense impact on the hearts and minds of those quietly mourning his absence, staffers at Row Three are (rather enthusiastically) taking this opportunity to share their own experiences of the Kurosawa catalogue]


A mansion on a hill towers over the lives of the serfs below, forming one of several relational images within High and Low. Even though it set in the early 1960s, the mansion belongs to a shoe manufacturer and the source material for the story is taken from a noir-ish American novel, Akira Kurosawa cannot help but craft a Samurai film. In its original Japanese, the film is actually titled Heaven & Hell, but really, the English translation (for once) is far a more apt moniker. Class, honour, and dignity are the clear sign-posts in High and Low not unlike your average chanbara eiga. However, the setting also allows for a fairly overt consideration of contemporary values (at the time) in post-war Japan. Predating, by a few decades, the modern dramatic procedural thoroughness of Zodiac on the big screen and the sticky ethical, moral and professional conundrums of HBO’s The Wire on the small screen – one suspects that David Fincher and David Simon are or would be admirers of the this film – it further underscores the elasticity of Kurosawa’s genre-bending dramas.

For High and Low is, in parts and fragments, a corporate take-over drama, a kidnapping saga, a detective procedural, a cat and mouse thriller, a meditation on the pressures and ethics of profession and finally a look at class and morality. The pacing and structure is both compact and well ventilated. Starting as a one room morality play, Kurosawa stalwart Toshiro Mifune plays competent and confident Kingo Gondo, an upper ranked executive at a shoe manufacturing company, who puts his fellow executives in their place with a severe tone. Gondo’s fellow businessmen wish to wrestle the company from its founder (“the old man”) by pooling stock which would allow them to reposition the company from making sturdy and conservative pumps (“Army Boots”) to disposable and trendy high-heels. Gondo, who rose from the lowest manufacturing job to one of the highest position will not compromise tradition for short-term gain,but neither does he agree with the old man’s unchanging attitude. The executives storm out at his rebuke. The scene is interesting and tense and shown in long takes of men on furniture with a pile of shoes in the foreground. But intrigue is afoot when the shoe-men attempt to bribe Gondo’s executive assistant of ten years to sell his boss out and join in on their interests. And Gondo then lets his wife (dressed in Geisha attire) and executive assistant in on his own scheme to buy deciding stake in the company by borrowing against all of his assets in a bid (already in motion) to purchase the requisite stock. This is accomplished the opening few minutes of the film before things swerve in another direction as Gondo’s son is mysteriously abducted while playing with the chauffeur’s boy and a ransom demand (curiously similar to the cash used for the stock buy) significantly more than any such demand in the country, is quickly communicated by phone. Faced with oncoming bankruptcy or the recovery of his boy, it is a no brain-er to pay the ransom, until the further complication comes in the form of the actual abducted child being the boy of the Chauffeur. The error on the part of the kidnapper makes no difference however, the demand that Gondo pays or the (wrong) boy dies still stands. A wonderful bit of moral stickiness ensues. While Gondo does not hesitate to save his own boy, he deliberates all night on how to proceed. He brings in the police, who now wait upon the rich man’s decision before a move can be made, while trying to get a slip or mistake or a trace in any of the kidnappers phone calls. One thing stands out. The abductor can see into the windows of Gondo’s glass house on the hill. Is the motive for the money grab simply because of the omnipresent home lording it over the rest of the city? While it is “hot as Hell” down in the cluttered alleyways and avenues below, Gondo lives in the luxury of glass and air-conditioning. Yet, Gondo is not the product of inherited money or class, but rather a self-made man. He keeps his a set of cobblers tools handy and knows every squeak and noise in the manufacturing operation. He is also mortgaged up to the hilt in his current business dealings which allows for the turning of the screw in the first half of the film and the director never allows the audience to gets off on easy the facile deliberation where the poor are good and rich is evil. Gondo is backed into the corner wherein even if he decides to throw his driver’s son under the bus (so to speak) and save his business interests he (and possibly his shoe company) will live with the stigma of choosing money over human life.

The second half of the film that abandons the tight, one room economy of Gondo’s living space and meanders into the city for a quest for the kidnapper. Here it is the body of working class police officers following leads and fragments of information to find the kidnapper. The focus is off Gondo and now on the nooks and crannies and minutiae of the city. Railroad lines, pay-phone locations and even the kidnappers rundown apartment allow the camera to show the city in its bustling glory, a 180-degree turn from the stately and monied mansion on the hill. Perhaps coming closer than anything else in the film’s original titular “Hell” is an alleyway of drug addicts, who shamble and stare like zombies, as the police and kidnapper push through them. Energetic and always moving, even if things go to a dead end or run in circles, the “Low” half of the film is as invigorating and tense on the level of direct action as the initial half was on mulling over tough choices. Kurosawa literally signals this change by blowing a flare of gloriously pink smoke which leaves a memorable impression considering the film is black and white. Again (see above) one wonders at the pilfering of this loaded image, and not quite as effectively, by Steven Spielberg in Schindler’s List. As the net tightens around the kidnapper by the police (equal parts organization, luck and preparedness and direct skill sets of the working class – as in a railroad conductor being able to tell what noise a car makes across each rail-line) the film winds down. The meeting of the kidnapper and the now financially ruined, but still mighty in his dignity, Gondo. The loaded complexity of this meeting with the kidnappers motivation by his own misunderstanding, jealousy, and the looming symbol of power of the industrialists abode are laid bare, but there is scant comfort in seeing the results. Neither the hero or villain has won, while the city (and the shoe-factory) continue on with or without the representatives of high or low. The world is both a slightly better place and a slightly lesser one; even if the cops can pat themselves on the back.

In slightly over two hours, Kurosawa has packed enough material for five films, yet it all comes back to Samurai notions of honour, self-possession and loyalty. Toshiro Mifune, who has played the swordsman (Samurai or Ronin) in so many of Kurosawa’s films may sport a sweater, moustache and glass of whiskey, but he is still a thoughtful, even noble, embodiment of the warrior and manages to maintain Gondo’s dignity when both in a position of power and one of subservience. Despite Akira Kurosawa often being accused of being a westernized Japanese director, he posits Mifune, in this case, as a pure symbol of what Japan wishes itself to be.

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Matt Brown

Such a great film. The first hour is a model of its craft.

David Brook

I rented this out and watched it tonight finally. Wow, it's really bloody good, a five star film if I ever did see one. You're spot on with the Wire similarities, I imagine a hell of a lot of police procedurals owe a debt of gratitude to this.

There's so much going on, yet it never feels messy or over-baked. As is the norm with Kurosawa it's all composed to perfection and contains some incredible scenes. I loved the train hand-over and the final scene in the prison. The drug den scene was disturbingly surreal too.