An Akira Kurosawa Modern-Dress Crime Drama
Akira Kurosawa (1910-1998) was famous for samurai-era settings, but he made a number of movies where the story took place at the time of filming. One of the best of these was High and Low (1963), a dark crime drama set in 1962 Yokohama. The plot was based on Ed McBain's novel King's Ransom, a police procedural.
But Kurosawa went beyond merely recounting a detective story: he examined some of the problematic consequences of the Japanese postwar economic miracle. More importantly, the movie illuminates the relationship between individuals and society in a general way that remains relevant today.
The star of High and Low is Toshiro Mifune, who gives another in a series of fine performances, this time as a dignified businessman. As required by the role, Mifune is very restrained here, so his usual tics and emotional outbursts are absent. He is ably supported by a cast of less well-known actors, although viewers familiar with Japanese cinema will recognize several of them. For example, Kyoko Kagawa (Tokyo Story) portrays Mifune's character's wife and Tatsuya Nakadai (Yojimbo) plays the police inspector.
Although the narrative in High and Low is simple, the film is visually complex. Kurosawa brilliantly used choreographed movements by actors and cameras, along with well thought-out editing, to communicate the characters' interrelationships and how they fit into their society. The visual style is crucial because the movie is not so much about plot or character as it is about setting and theme. The film's English-language title refers to socioeconomic classes.
An Oddly Structured Film That Expresses a Bleak Worldview
High and Low is made up of two parts of roughly equal length. The first half is a riveting human drama about a kidnapping. The second half is an elaborate hunt for the kidnapper, and this is not so emotionally involving, with much of it feeling familiar from countless TV programs. But the film has a coda that makes for an intellectually satisfying ending.
The first half centers on Kingo Gondo (Mifune), a wealthy industrialist who lives in luxury in a mansion high on a hill overlooking the teeming city. At age 16 he started out as an apprentice at National Shoes, then rose steadily over the next 30 years, and as the movie opens, he is putting together a deal that will permit him to realize his dream of becoming the top man at the giant company. But a kidnapping takes place, and suddenly his life spins out of control.
In the second half, Gondo is peripheral as a team of policemen sort out clues and track down the kidnapper. We are shown the impoverished perpetrator right away and taken inside his dingy, cramped apartment in a slum below Gondo's house. The police eventually follow the kidnapper to sleazy bars, seedy hotels and an appalling dope den. In this half, Kurosawa shows us the kidnapper's world.
In the film's closing minutes, Gondo and the kidnapper finally confront each other. It's a melancholy scene as Gondo struggles to come to terms with the notion that his success was a cause of extreme alienation in someone he didn't even know existed. In High and Low, Kurosawa gives us a gloomy view of the human condition.
Booklet With Chuck Stephens Essay
The disc containing High and Low provides no DVD bonus materials. However, packaged with the disc is a four-page booklet that includes an essay by film writer Chuck Stephens. He attaches great importance to the scene showing Gondo, who has several household servants, sweating profusely as he mows his own grass.
Below I have listed all the details for the Criterion Collection DVD containing High and Low.
Release Date: October 14, 1998
Feature Film Runtime: 2 hours 23 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Widescreen (2.35:1), Black and White
4-Page Booklet With Essay by Chuck Stephens