High and Low

A part of this view­ing list: Cri­te­ri­on Col­lec­tion Spine #24: Aki­ra Kurosawa’s High and Low.


Almost the entire first hour of High and Low takes place in one room, but there is no lack of activ­i­ty despite this fact. Just syn­chro­niz­ing the block­ing must have tak­en a ton of work. The room is spa­cious because it belongs to Gon­do, a wealthy indus­tri­al­ist [played by Toshi­ro Mifu­ne] who is mak­ing a bid to take over his shoe com­pa­ny. Right after kick­ing out the oth­er exec­u­tive and just as he is about to send his assis­tant off to Osa­ka with 50 mil­lion dol­lars to com­plete the takeover, he gets a call from a man who has kid­napped his child and demands a $30 mil­lion ran­som. Well it turns out it isn’t his kid that was kid­napped, but the chauffeur’s. The kid­nap­per demands the $30 mil­lion any­way. No police, unmarked bills, the usu­al deal. The police show up in a shoe deliv­ery van, dressed as shoe deliv­ery men and get to work. So we’ve got a stan­dard police pro­ce­dur­al, but we’re also deal­ing with Kuro­sawa.


The rub comes with the mon­ey. If Gon­do doesn’t pay the ran­som, the kid gets killed. If he does pay the ran­som, he’ll be unable to takeover the com­pa­ny, and will be unable to repay all of the mon­ey he has bor­rowed in order to do so. There are sev­er­al tense scenes where var­i­ous par­ties strug­gle to ratio­nal­ize this conun­drum, but it real­ly isn’t ever in doubt that he’ll fork over the cash. Not to do so would be dis­hon­or­able. Any­way, the whole frig­gin’ police force seems to get in on the inves­ti­ga­tion, main­ly because of Gondo’s altru­ism. We’re talk­ing around 100 cops work­ing on this one case. Some­how I don’t think that would ever hap­pen in the USA, but though this film was meant for a con­tem­po­rary Japan, there are strong echoes of the clan loy­al­ty we see in many samu­rai films. These echoes are delib­er­ate and help high­light the social cri­tique that is actu­al­ly at the heart of the film.


The kid­nap­per lives in the slum below the cliff estate of Gon­do and comes to hate the man for his afflu­ence. This is his motive. Even the cops, as they track the move­ments of the crim­i­nal, note that the estate looms over the town in a patron­iz­ing fash­ion. The fact that Gon­do worked hard to make it where he was is of no con­se­quence. The strug­gle is emblem­at­ic of the ado­les­cent-stage tran­si­tion of Japan to a more West­ern­ized econ­o­my and cul­ture. The kid­nap­per is not to be con­sid­ered sym­pa­thet­ic, but it is cer­tain­ly pos­si­ble to empathize with his uncom­pre­hend­ing hatred of new­ly emerg­ing class bound­aries with Gon­do as its sym­bol. Even in the lat­ter third of the film, which con­tains an extreme­ly marked change in style, sub­stance and act­ing, the kid­nap­per hides behind mir­rored glass­es when he enters into the bustling, and very West­ern nightlife in search of some hero­in. While Gon­do can adapt, and con­tin­ues to do so no mat­ter how bad things get, the kid­nap­per can only react neg­a­tive­ly to his envi­ron­ment Thus, at the end, when he says he does not fear death, he speaks the truth. Death would be wel­comed by him. His ensu­ing break­down I attribute to an inabil­i­ty to cope with the new face of Japan.