Akira Kurosawa, “High and Low” (1963)
Most movies based on pulp crime / police procedural novels rarely exceed their pulpy inspirations but legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa seems incapable of sticking to the style of the original source material, in this case an Ed McBain novel. No, no matter what sources he uses, be they ordinary crime action scribblings or Shakespearean plays, his films become meditations on human nature and society, and enter the panoply of great classic films. “High and Low” is one such of his works, if perhaps underrated because it’s set in the present day rather than in an exotic mediaeval Japanese past of samurai honour. Kurosawa teams up with equally legendary Toshiro Mifune, playing a ruthless businessman, and a capable no-nonsense supporting cast to bring to the screen a straightforward crime thriller with a timeless plot of downfall and redemption and a plea for humanity to rediscover precious lost values of compassion and consideration for others’ suffering.
Kingo Gondo (Mifune) is planning to buy out his partners in National Shoes and to that end has mortgaged his hill-top mansion to raise the loan that will enable him to take over the company and run it the way he wants. (Admittedly his partners want to convert the shoe-making operations into making cheap shoes for easy profit whereas Gondo believes in making long-lasting quality items that will ensure a regular income stream in the long term.) On the verge of achieving the buy-out though, Gondo receives a mysterious phone call from a stranger claiming to have kidnapped his son. The catch is that the stranger has actually kidnapped his chauffeur’s son Shinichi. The stranger demands a huge ransom that, if paid, would totally ruin Gondo – but if he does not pay, the child will surely be killed. Ever the Machiavellian, Gondo declares he will not pay in spite of his wife and chauffeur’s pleas and the recommendations of the police investigating the case.
The film divides into two unequal halves: the first half takes place almost completely in Gondo’s home, acquiring a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere and focusing on Gondo as he wrestles with other people’s demands and his obsessive desires; the second longer half, taking place in parts of the city beneath the hill where Gondo’s home is located, deals with the police search for the kidnapper and bringing him to justice. In this section, Gondo is no longer the main character though his downfall is made fairly obvious; the film becomes a cat-and-mouse game with the police led by Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) pursuing the kidnapper and closing in on him by setting up a sting operation in which they pretend that two heroin addict accomplices he has killed are still alive and are (irony of ironies) extorting him for more junk.
The film’s minimal presentation throws attention onto the tense plot and the characters themselves as they deal with the emergency at hand and its aftermath. Mifune’s understated acting is commendable and demonstrates clearly the dilemma Gondo is placed in, his obsession with maintaining his status and family’s comfort and how eventually he is transformed by the results of the decision he finally makes. Being portrayed as a hero by newspapers for the decision he does make (under pressure from others, not because of his conscience), Gondo becomes a humbler man (though this transformation is not shown) and on meeting the kidnapper at the end of the film, seeks to understand his motives for Shinichi’s abduction.
The film achieves its epic status in many ways: it highlights the class differences between Gondo and the people he comes to rely on to rescue Shinichi and recover his money; it shows something of what motivates Gondo and the kidnapper, the social and economic gulf that separates them, and how their differing motivations and the resulting behaviour might lead one to redemption and the other to damnation; and then it adds ambiguity and irony to suggest that the one who is redeemed does not really deserve it after all. This is all done with a well-structured plot that moves quickly and generates plenty of tension, in a city where social and economic contrasts are great and each is a comment on the other. Few films are able to combine rich psychological study, a tale of downfall and redemption and an engrossing police investigation all in one.