High and Low

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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