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?
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.