Discovering Kurosawa: High and Low

highandlowKurosawa was better known for his period pieces, so I’ve unconsciously gravitated to those first as I delve into his work. But he made plenty of contemporary films, and High and Low is considered one of the finest. It’s both a domestic drama and a crime thriller, and almost literally a splicing of the two: the first hour is confined to a family home before the case moves outside to the sweltering streets of Yokohama in summer.

Toshiro Mifune stars as Kingo Gondo, a rich and successful entrepreneur at odds with other executives in his company. He receives a call at home informing him his son has been kidnapped and he must pay a ransom that would ruin him. But the kidnapper has taken the son of Gondo’s chauffeur by mistake, so Gondo must decide whether or not to bankrupt himself for the sake of another man’s son.

The first hour never leaves Gondo’s house as his family and the police receive more calls while Gondo agonises over whether to pay. He only appears occasionally in the rest of the film once the investigation leaves the house, but his decisions hang over the film and he’s one of two characters in the final scene. Mifune again demonstrates his versatility with a less theatrical performance. Gondo is stoic and in control of his emotions, but Mifune quietly conveys his inner battle between compassion and self-interest. He’s as magnetic as ever.

Also reappearing after supporting roles in Yojimbo and Sanjuro is Tatsuya Nakadai as the lead detective. I was pleased to discover that Nakadai plays the king in Ran, connecting that later masterpiece to Kurosawa’s earlier career at Toho and giving me another reason to look forward to returning to Ran down the track.

High and Low is the most raw and solemn of Kurosawa’s films I’ve seen. Throne of Blood is obviously intense, but the drama is so deliberately heightened and theatrical that it’s a different emotional experience. High and Low is resolutely real and takes us from the cold powerbroking of the corporate world to the humid, dingy streets as we move from Gondo’s world to the kidnapper’s. Kurosawa is unflinching in portraying the contrasts between these socioeconomic spheres, taking us to an alley of drug addicts, one of whom the kidnapper kills to test a poison. These scenes are largely silent and speak for themselves as quiet horror.

This contrast is the key to the case, generating that infrequent and welcome convergence in a mystery story of motive and social commentary. Filmed in 1963, Kurosawa is addressing the postwar economic transformation of Japan relatively early, exposing the divisions that have emerged between capitalism and the people. High and Low serves not only as an engrossing crime saga, but an educational insight into the tensions of Japan’s evolution into an economic powerhouse.

The film’s narrative power needs to be stressed though. This isn’t just a sociological treatise, but a taut and innovative story. The housebound first hour is a gripping actor showcase, which could have happily lasted for the whole film. But the prospect of the story breaking loose into the city concurrently becomes more tantalising as time goes on.

The script makes much of what lies outside: Gondo’s house is perched on top of the hill, its huge windows visible to the people below, making it vulnerable and exposed now where it previously gave a wealthy family distance from others. The rarefied atmosphere is heightened by Gondo’s associates and the police coming to him rather than the other way around. We don’t know Gondo as a physical presence in the world outside, only in the typically powerful and now powerless confines of his luxurious home. When he finally descends into the city at the mercy of an angry citizen, the transgression is compelling. We are already deeply invested in the city and its struggles before ever seeing it up close.

High and Low feels like a fusion of two different types of Hitchcock film: the claustrophobic drama of Rope with the sprawling mystery of North by Northwest, but with far less levity. This is the darkest of Kurosawa’s films I’ve seen, yet still unmistakably bears his imprint: economical narrative and character work that generate a seething energy, where even silence is flooded with tension. He made other contemporary crime films that I plan to check out, such as The Bad Sleep Well and Drunken Angel, and High and Low sets a high standard for them to live up to.


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