High and Low (1963)

30 Jan

high_and_low_jp_The films of Akira Kurosawa are so beautiful, I find myself mesmerized while watching them. He has become one of the most interesting directors I’ve ever seen. Most of his films I’ve seen are samurai films, with their own unique beauty rooted in the past, but High and Low is no less captivating for being set in the contemporary time of 1963.

It’s partly a crime drama, partly psychological, partly a look at economic disparity and despair. Toshiro Mifune is Kingo Gondo, an executive of National Shoes. He is engaged in a high stakes battle to control the shoe company outright and he has mortgaged everything he owns to do it. But when the son of his chauffeur is mistaken for own his son and abducted, Gondo has to decide whether or not to pay for the boy’s safe return. To do so would be to lose everything: his position, his large home, his entire life’s work.

This struggle actually only comprises the first third of the film. It could be divided up into three parts. The first part occurs almost exclusively in Gondo’s living room, which overlooks the city below, including many poor hovels. The second part is mostly police procedural, as the police – led by Chief Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) – try to track down the kidnapper. The last third is mostly devoted to the kidnapper himself (Tsutomu Yamazaki). By that time, the film has switched from Gondo’s apartment to the wide, seamy underbelly of the city where cocaine addicts, drug dealers, and the less fortunate live.

The film is almost like Psycho in that way – if Janet Leigh’s character got to meet Norman Bates at the end of the film.

(Spoilers ahead) In Psycho there is that riveting scene where Marian Crane talks with Norman Bates and they discover an uneasy kind of sympathy which so upsets Norman that he kills her later. Things happen a little differently in High and Low. Gondo and the kidnapper meet, but only at the end when the kidnapper has been sentenced to death. The sympathy seems to be all on Gondo’s side. Does he see a little of himself in him?


Mifune listens to the kidnapper’s instructions

The kidnapper tells of his terrible suffering and how much he grew to hate Gondo, living up in that large house on the hill looking down on him. The film ends with him screaming and going mad in chilling fashion while Gondo sits quietly. It’s rather appalling and reads like a powerful indictment. The suggestion is of the crushing, maddening force of soulless economic conditions. The irony is that in hating Gondo, the kidnapper hates a self-made man who has an essential humanity in him. The other executives of National Shoes, on the other hand, seem to be missing that essential humanity, not caring much whether the chauffeur’s son lives or dies. In the kidnapper’s quest to hurt Gondo, many innocent people are hurt: the chauffeur, several cocaine- addicts, people the kidnapper clearly regards as of no value.

Also ironically, he might have actually done Gondo a service, albeit a painful one. Gondo is on his way to becoming like the other executives – his wife complains of it – but ultimately cannot sacrifice a child for his ambitions, however much he tries to talk himself into it. When he meets the kidnapper, Gondo seems a sadder, wiser, and more compassionate man. Toshiro Mifune is an actor with charisma to spare, which makes his quiet sadness all the more striking at the end.

After watching High and Low, it seems that Akira Kurosawa totally could have directed horror movies (or did he?). Especially in the last third with the kidnapper and his sunglasses, making him look like an eyeless monster as he moves through the flowers and preys on a cocaine addict. Even the junkies seem curiously zombie-like.

But Kurosawa’s unique touch is not just limiting to the last third. Even though the first third takes place almost exclusively in Gondo’s living room, the dynamic way he uses the camera, moving one way to pick up a character who is about the speak, moving in and out, is always gripping. No matter where you pause, you can tell exactly what emotions characters are feeling by their posture. There is also the way the police are obliged to awkwardly pretend not to be listening while Gondo is alternately begged by his wife to save the child, betrayed by a close business associate, threatened by bankers, and also while the chauffeur is so desperate to save his son that he bows down and begs on his face for Gondo to save him. It’s a gut-wrenching moment. And an emotionally powerful movie.



Posted by on January 30, 2017 in Movies


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12 responses to “High and Low (1963)

  1. Vienna

    January 30, 2017 at 11:59 pm

    I agree, fascinating film. I only discovered Kurosawa last year, thanks to a friend who lent me The Seven Sumarai. I could hardly believe that I thought it was better than The Magnificent Seven!
    I am about to see Seven Samurai on the big screen so that should be great,,plus a documentary on Mifune.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      January 31, 2017 at 9:53 am

      Oh, that sounds like it will be a marvelous experience!! Rather jealous, actually. I hope you have a great time! 🙂 Yeah, it’s pretty startling how good his films are – I keep wondering how I had never seen them before.


  2. Grand Old Movies

    January 31, 2017 at 11:22 am

    Great post on this great film. High and Low has something new every time you see (the money drop-off sequence on the train is brilliantly done). The actor who played the kidnapper (I think it was his film debut) went on to play comedy in films like Tampopo and The Funeral. And the great Tatsuya Nakadai would star in other Kurosawa movies like Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Kagemusha, and Ran, in which he played samurai roles.

    Another Kurosawa/Mifune collaboration set in modern (ie, post-war) times to check out is The Bad Sleep Well, in which Mifune goes undercover to find out about corruption at a large corporation. Another trenchant look at the consumer/capitalist culture of post-war Japan.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      January 31, 2017 at 9:01 pm

      It’s amazing how riveting it is, even though it doesn’t feel like a fast, action paced film, yet I could hardly take my eyes of it! I’m having trouble imagining the kidnapper in comedy – he was so convincing. 🙂

      I just got Ran on blue ray – hoping to watch it very soon! I have seen Sanjuro and Yojimbo, but I have to admit that I did not recognize that Nakadai was the same actor in both films – he seemed to play the two characters so differently.

      Thanks for the recommendation! I had not heard of The Bad Sleep Well. The plot sounds very intriguing, though. It’s been hard to get enough of Kurosawa and Mifune recently. 🙂


  3. stephencwinter

    January 31, 2017 at 11:31 am

    I confess that Kurosawa is a director whose work I do not know very well but your piece intrigues me. Once again, thank you for the encouragement to explore something new!

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      January 31, 2017 at 9:09 pm

      I’m so glad it was an inspiration! It has been one of my favorite of his films so far. Another good one to see is the Seven Samurai, especially if you enjoy The Magnificent Seven, but even if not. Kurosawa seems like one of those directors who really has a grasp of universal, human themes that resonate across culture and time.


  4. Patricia Nolan-Hall (@CaftanWoman)

    February 1, 2017 at 3:36 pm

    Excellent review of a riveting film. That’s a word that suits all of the Kurosawa I have seen and I regret that I came to him later than I should have – or did I? I like to think movies come to you when they are supposed to.

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 1, 2017 at 7:59 pm

      That is a really intriguing idea! I have had that feeling – where I meant to watch a movie, but when I finally get around to seeing it, it feels so perfect to have watched it in that moment and not earlier. Perhaps there is much truth in that.


  5. Eric Binford

    February 7, 2017 at 2:00 pm

    One of my favorite directors! High & Low is one of his best films — a fantastically constructed thriller. I recommend Stray Dog (1949), another great Kurosawa thriller. Anyhow, he is definitely a great director, and one of the most influential filmmakers too. Imagine this: no Yojimbo, no spaghetti westerns, no Hidden Fortress, no Star Wars. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 7, 2017 at 2:50 pm

      That is a horrible thought! It’s funny how, growing up, he was never a director I heard about. Griffith, Hitchcock…but never Kurosawa. He deserves more!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Eric Binford

    February 7, 2017 at 2:06 pm

    “After watching High and Low, it seems that Akira Kurosawa totally could have directed horror movies” Good point! Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood, an adaptation of Macbeth (Shakespeare has been described by more than one critic as the “Stephen King of the Elizabethan era”), could be described as quasi-horror. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • christinawehner

      February 7, 2017 at 2:53 pm

      “Stephen King of the Elizabethan Era” – that is funny, but true! Interesting how Kurosawa brought out the horror aspects of Shakespeare – so often Shakespeare is played too politely.

      Liked by 1 person


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