Whenever the cinematic legacy of Akira Kurosawa gets brought up, there is a tendency amongst cinephiles to focus squarely on the numerous samurai films he made with Toshiro Mifune. You know the ones I’m talking about, Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress etc. Whilst it’s most certainly true that Kurosawa made many samurai films (and many of them happened to star Mifune), it would be ignorant to say that Kurosawa only made samurai films, much the same way it would be ignorant to say that John Ford only made westerns with John Wayne or that Martin Scorsese only makes gangster films with Robert De Niro. The other side, and slightly neglected (although not entirely) side of his career found him exploring key moral and philosophical questions, with plenty of social commentary to spare. Films like Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, Ikiru, I Live in Fear and The Bad Sleep Well all fit into this category. And one of the finest examples of this side of Kurosawa’s filmmaking, and one of his many crowning achievements, is his 1963 crime procedural High and Low.
A rich executive of National Shoes, Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), is blackmailed by a kidnapper who says he has kidnapped his son. They quickly realize however that it’s not in fact Gondo’s son, it’s his chauffeur Aoki’s son. The first half of the film virtually plays out like a morality tale of whether or not Gondo should pay the ransom because if he does, he will risk his entire fortune and his family’s well-being. But if he doesn’t pay, he might endanger the boy.
As previously stated, High and Low is a crime procedural that concerns itself with a kidnapping, not the most common trope of the genre, and all the moral implications that come with a kidnapping and what in society might inspire someone to commit said crime. Kurosawa despised kidnapping and considered it one of the worst crimes, and wanted to make a film that condemned it (how ironic then that it was blamed for inspiring many real-life kidnappings upon release). For inspiration, Kurosawa asked Toho to purchase the rights to Ed McBain’s novel King’s Ransom, and much like he had done in Throne of Blood and The Lower Depths and would later do again in Ran, Kurosawa takes a piece of Western literature and seamlessly transfers it to a Japanese setting.
Although the film technically stars Toshiro Mifune in the lead, for me the real star of the film is Tatsuya Nakadai. In the previous Kurosawa films he had appeared in, Yojimbo and Sanjuro, he was always the amoral antagonist to Mifune’s somewhat-more-moral protagonist. In High and Low, Nakadai plays Inspector Tokura, the chief investigator in charge of the entire kidnapping case. What makes Tokura such an interesting and engaging character, for me anyways, is simply his decency. He’s not only a very nice guy he’s also a real good detective, with a strong sense of morality to him. Sometimes one doesn’t really need all too complicated characters honestly, sometimes it’s enough to have a character who is just decent and damn good at his job. Lou Solverson from the second season of Fargo comes to mind as another great example.
The English title of the film is High and Low, and the films original Japanese title is 天国と地獄, which literally means “heaven and hell.” This is not an incidental choice on Kurosawa’s part, and it allows him to delve into subtle symbolism that remains grounded in reality. Much like The Bad Sleep Well and Stray Dog, the film is grounded in a contemporary Japan, with all the good, the bad and the ugly that comes with that. Gondo’s house is located above the rest of Tokyo, almost as if he’s a God of sorts, with all the wealth and luxury that comes with such a position. Even some of the detectives working on the case express their hatred for the house when they’re on the ground. Tokura’s right-hand man Bos’n Taguchi (Kenjirô Ishiyama) says that he usually doesn’t waste his love on the rich since he grew up poor. In a way, we can all relate to the kidnapper in this case. We all hate the rich and the people who are more well-off than we are. We’re mere mortals whilst they live their lives in luxury. Gondo’s place does look like heaven to most of us, but most of us can never dream of ever achieving that kind of status. In the end, all we can do is mock them and remind them they’re still human, whilst the rest of us pay the price.
High and Low is a monumental piece of work from Kurosawa, an entertaining and thrilling crime procedural that keeps us on the edge whilst providing us with social and universal truths we don’t normally get from the cinema.