High and Low (1963)

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Kurosawa and Mifune center a top notch thriller on a moral dilemma. 

I chose Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low as one of my 10 classics to watch in 2015 because I love detective and procedural movies, because I kept reading rave reviews about it, some even saying that it’s the very best example of the genre, and because I don’t really know too much about Japanese cinema beyond martial arts/action films, and Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and Yojimbo. I really enjoyed it and I hope all my 2015 movies are half this impressive. Upon a standard thriller structure (adapted from the book King’s Ransom by Ed McBain) Kurosawa builds a complicated, multilayered and fascinating story about Japanese society and class structure, human nature, a race-against-time kidnapping, a criminal investigation and the personal aftershocks.

Toshirō Mifune plays Gondo, a woman’s shoe company executive, and as the movie begins we find him high in his beautiful mountaintop home, in the middle of one of the most important meetings of his career, He and the other executives bitterly disagree and are at a stalemate over the direction of the company (they want to go cheap while he favours high quality). His colleagues leave in a huff, complaining about his stubbornness, acknowledging and resenting his value to the company, and we learn Mifune has a deal in the works; he’s mortgaged everything to buy controlling interest and take over the company his good taste and judgement have built. We meet Mifune’s wife, son and a playmate, the chauffeur’s boy, as they pass through playing cowboy. Not long after, Mifune gets a phone call telling him his child has been kidnapped. Mifune and wife are still in shock and planning how to scrape together the ransom money, nearly impossible in his current situation, when his son reappears. They’ve kidnapped the playmate by mistake.

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Now Mifune must decide whether he’s as willing to pay ransom for someone else’s child, and though he promises to help the chauffeur get his son back, Mifune asserts that he simply can’t afford the ransom in any sense. He’s in a no-win situation and any option wipes him out. If he pays he reduces his family to poverty, if he chooses not to pay, he has the death of a child on his hands and destroys his career and reputation. Mifune’s acting is powerful and perfect. He’s barely able to keep his rage under control, shows signs of compassion, struggles with his decision even when he seems to state it most firmly. He can barely meet the gaze of his distraught chauffeur (Yutaka Sada), who tries mightily to stay strong but collapses in a grovelling heap at Mifune’s feet. Sada begs his employer to save his boy, yet also feels he has no right to ask such a thing, and knows he would be impossibly indebted if Mifune does help. It’s adult strength, tough and touching stuff that reveals class and culture in Japan and human nature everywhere. Mifune and wife (Kyôko Kagawa) have a conversation that you can predict along gender lines; as a mother she says Mifune has a duty to save the child, while he is the stern realist and protector who can’t bear to make a decision that will put his wife and son in the poorhouse. They’re both right, but she is a powerful persuader. It’s one of many different exchanges with or about Mifune that reveal different aspects of his character.

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A pet movie peeve of mine is the depiction of police as stupid, so I was grateful for this movie’s fully drawn, deep and interesting lawmen who act intelligently and responsibly, and hold diverse opinions not only about the case but about its ethics and impact upon the victims once their work is done. Led by odd couple partners Tatsuya Nakadai and Kenjirô Ishiyama, the procedural process makes up the middle part of the film, and is a slow and careful piecing together of clues ranging from the sounds of different electric railway cars to a child’s drawing of a bandage, to searching for phone booths with views of Mifune’s home. The police warm to Mifune, respect him, feel deeply for his quandary and his sacrifices and dedicate themselves to help him save the boy and his own life from too much damage. As they gather in his home to wait for the kidnapper’s calls, there’s a great scene where they hide under the coffee table when the caller says he can see the house. One of the best sequences I’ve ever seen in a police procedural happens as the officers meet to review the evidence they have so far. It’s gripping, easy to follow and edited with flashbacks and voiceover. When the ransom money is prepared for delivery in distinctive leather suitcases, the police plant chemicals that will signal if the money is ever burned or dumped. A couple major scenes come out of this detail: one, that Mifune rolls up his sleeves and gets down to work using the shoemaker skills he started out with, to help hide those traps in the leather bags, and two, in a black and white movie as stark as this one, you get a stunning shot of colour when the kidnapper burns the money, sending plumes of bright pink smoke into the gray sky. As the police do their thing, the chauffeur gets involved, desperate to help the case and Mifune; class divisions have all but disappeared among working together to solve this case, and the “bad guy” is not only the criminal but anyone unsympathetic to Mifune’s sacrifice.

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The final section shows the police closing in on the kidnapper and descending to follow him into a seedy neighbourhood. After all the talking in the first sections, this one depends on American music and visuals like writhing junkies in withdrawal, zombie faced addicts waiting for their next fix, and the kidnapper (Tsutomu Yamazaki), a cold and predatory young man in sunglasses that make him look like an insect, as he navigates the human wreckage to get heroin to murder his accomplices. When he’s caught, and Mifune faces him in prison, Yamazaki speaks for the first time. He chose Mifune to hate and destroy because he was highest and most successful. He gives the lame excuse that he is less fortunate, as if fortune led him to choose criminal, deadly and destructive acts, as if Mifune was not once just as unfortunate, just as low, and worked hard to build a successful life and business without inflicting this kind of misery on anyone. They are reflections of each other in the glass, both brought low, but where Yamazaki has descended further from resentment to become a completely pathetic and hateful screaming madman, Mifune still has the value of his integrity. To me this was the weakest part of the movie because it lacked the tension of the earlier parts, but I do appreciate that in reality there’s never a satisfying reason why psychos do what they do, so ending with insanity and the lack of a “good reason” shows us these things will always exist and happen to the best of people.

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High and Low looks gorgeous, with stark contrasts and one scene after another of beautifully composed images that tell stories and are suitable for studying and framing: a room full of people caught up in their own thoughts, listening to a voice on the phone, waiting for a suspect to pass, climbing a steep road to follow where a child leads them. The ransom is dropped from a train down onto the footing of a bridge in an amazing sequence. As the police try to photograph the kidnappers from the speeding train, the images are downright creepy, a brief blurry look at a mysterious figure standing stock-still next to the boy. The movie is symmetrical, showing us two levels, Heaven and Hell (the literal translation of the title), two styles of and approaches to life, two personalities at extreme ends, and the spaces between where danger lurks and law keeps order. Clearly I really liked High and Low and found a lot in it that I’m still thinking about. As a fan of movies like Se7en, Zodiac, and The Naked City, I can easily say that I’ve just seen one of the most riveting in this genre, and one I’ll gladly watch again.

Laura has joined me in watching and reviewing High and Low, a first time watch for her too– she shares her thoughts here. It’s a great review and I’m not surprised that we were impressed by many of the same details, plot points and characters, including the pink smoke and the fabulous police evidence report–shows you how memorable and artfully done those parts were. I’m a fan of the American movie she was reminded of (you have to go read to see which one). Nice to see we enjoyed and have pretty much the same opinions about it, and I’d agree that this is already one of my big discoveries this year. Thanks Laura!

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8 thoughts on “High and Low (1963)”

  1. Hi Kristina,

    Loved this film and loved revisiting it via your comments.

    “One of the best sequences I’ve ever seen in a police procedural happens as the officers meet to review the evidence they have so far. It’s gripping…” Yes!! Totally. I was amazed how exciting a scene could be with people just taking turns standing up to talk. 🙂

    I was nodding the whole way through your post, such as this: “I was grateful for this movie’s fully drawn, deep and interesting lawmen who act intelligently and responsibly, and hold diverse opinions not only about the case but about its ethics and impact upon the victims once their work is done.” The detectives really make the movie. I *loved* some of their reactions to the ongoing business shenanigans.

    “suitable for framing and studying” — for sure. I definitely feel like I need to see this one again soon. I foresee adding this to my collection in the next Criterion sale — the disc has a “making of” documentary, too!

    I didn’t even mention the breathtaking bullet train sequence —

    So, how can we find more movies like this one?!

    Best wishes,
    Laura

    1. If only they were all this great! So much to say… I really love to see police like this, they were really fabulous and strong enough characters to take over the plot and carry it through the middle investigation part. I’m not as familiar with many of these actors as you probably are but each one made an immediate impact on me.

      Loved the train sequences and from what I read Kurosawa had all those extras to play the passengers and used two runs of that trip to film all that. So suspenseful.

      Thrilled to kick off the 10 with this caliber of movie and now I want to check out the other Kurosawa/Mifune crime pictures for sure. Like you said, it’s a huge kick to discover something you feel this excited about 🙂

      Thanks so much for joining me and looking forward to the next!

    1. It is really amazingly good, and I think you’d like it very much! I’m already looking up other Kurosawa crime pictures to see. The neat thing about this is that it reflects back the western style of crime and noir stories from Japan, yet is universal even with their settings and culture. Definitely check it out. Thanks!

  2. This film was an eye opener for me because when I went through my “Kurosawa-Mifune stage” I had devoured the Samurai films like Sanjuro and Yojimbo etc. When I came to this one I was hesitant to see them do something different and like you found this film stunning in practically every department. Great “take” on this one.

    1. Thanks! Yes this genre is right up my alley and it fascinating to see how it’s done in foreign movies. I need to see way more of not only Kurosawa but some other classic Japanese movies. Already added a few to my “wanna see” list 🙂

  3. Great writeup. I like this movie a lot too. I especially like the way that Kurosawa brings social commentary in so naturally here. I confess I can’t remember if this is from the McBain novel (read many years ago) or if Kurosawa grafted it on.

    1. Yes and that’s the key, everything here really is so natural, the whole thing moves effortlessly and feels organic. I know there actually are long takes in the first parts of the movie but even where it’s cut together it’s so smooth that it feels like a half hour goes by as one take. Not totally familiar with the differences between the book & Movie except for what I read about the police in the novel being much more prejudiced and unfriendly toward Mifune’s character. Thanks!

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