High and Low: Heaven and Hell in black and white

Last Updated: Mon, Aug 19, 2019 08:51 hrs

Akira Kurosawa replaces his sword weilding heroes from ancient Japan and supplants their perennial moral conflicts to a modern-day setting in his masterful crime drama High and Low

As one of the all-time-great police procedural directed by one of the greatest filmmakers, High and Low often takes a back seat to other greats by Akira Kurosawa.

The Japanese born filmmaker, know for his proclivity to adapt literary classics - from Dostoyevsky (The Idiot) to Shakespeare (Throne of Blood), chose to adapt High and Low from an American pulp thriller from a lesser-known author.

The plot, loosely based on Ed McBain's police procedural novel King's Ransom, is neatly split into two acts. The film opens with Kingo Gondo (played by the imperious Toshiro Mifune), an executive director for a major shoe manufacturer, in the midst of a hostile takeover. He has mortgaged his home to secure the money, and having bet his entire fortune on a gamble he plans to catch a flight to cement his takeover.

But in a masterstroke of cinematic misdirection, Kingo receives a phone call that announces that someone has kidnapped his son. However, in another twist when the son is suddenly found unharmed, Kingo and the kidnapper make a frightful realisation: that the abducted boy is in fact Kingo's chauffeur's son. The kidnapper refuses to change his demands and orders Kingo to pay the money anyway else the boy dies.

Kingo's bullish persona stands in stark contrast to his situation. Mifune dominates the frame in every shot, his speckless white shirt stands out luminously amongst the other players. Kurosawa frames him carefully; Mifune's Kingo is always placed in the foreground. This visual imprint is in contrast to his role.

This builds the conflict of the first half of the picture. Paying the ransom will ruin Kingo financially; not paying it will ruin him as a human being. Kingo's torment plays against the backdrop a police thriller, as Kurosawa delves into the police force's efforts to track the kidnapper, led by the perceptive but ruthless Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai). The first half of the film takes place entirely in the 'high' of Kingo's luxury mansion. Perched high up on a hill overlooking the ugly streets below the home seems heavenlike.

As the first-half concludes so does Kingo's dilemma. The focus shifts to 'low' part of the title. In a verité style reminiscent of Kurosawa's early work, the director takes the cameras out into the crowded city streets of Japan abuzz with ordinary citizens, gangsters, drug dealers, and prostitutes. The second-half is also unconventional in that unlike most films about abductions the kidnapped boy is already home. All that remains is catching the kidnapper Takeuchi (played with a feverish intensity by Tsutomu Yamazaki). Seen from Takeuchi's perspective, the scenes appear more akin to a rabid dog avoiding his imminent capture and to the film's nihilistic final conversation.

Shot in stark blacks and whites, High and Low is one of Kurosawa's most visually resonant film. Its widescreen compositions reveal Kurosawa's mastery of the form, using it to its fullest potential.

Throughout the story, members of the police force act as both participants and commentators on the situation and the dilemmas many of the characters face.

High and Low judges its characters by their actions. Kingo and Takeuchi are compared and contrasted. Both men have a streak of ruthlessness. Both are also tireless in their pursuits. However, Kingo and Takeuchi are also radically different. In Kurosawa's vision of the world, Kingo's choices elevate him above Takeuchi. Seen thus, the wealthy Kingo, whose ilk is clearly despised for their apathy, becomes more sympathetic through his decision to pay the ransom for his driver's son. In contrast, Takeuchi, whose destitution should fill the audience with sympathy becomes more unlikable due to his choices.

In this regard, the film's original Japanese title, Tengoku to Jigoku, meaning 'Heaven or Hell' takes new meanings.

Kurosawa found himself attracted to McBain's story not only because of its unique plot twist but also because of its potential for social and ethical commentary.

High and Low is composed of many layers, something few filmmakers are able to achieve. Made partly with an aim to criticise both the lenient legislation on kidnapping crimes in Japan at the time and the large social gap between those at the top and bottom.

Those looking for an escapist thriller will be exhilarated by the plot's rapid pace and Kurosawa's engaging direction. Those looking for more commentary on ideas and insight into socio-economic dynamics will also not be left wanting. Kurosawa trammels in his films a unique blend of escapism with ideas. Like the duality of its title, High and Low balances these dual roles with extreme confidence yielding a truly singular cinematic experience.

This review is part of a series titled 'Cinematheque' centered around canvassing lesser-known films.

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