High-flying executive Kingo Gondo (Toshirô Mifune) is poised to seize control of National Shoes, having mortgaged everything he owns to keep the company out of the hands of greedy, incompetent executives. On the night of the takeover a phone-call informs Gondo his son has been kidnapped. The kidnapper demands thirty million yen for the boy’s safe return. Gondo is all set to pay until he and his wife (Kyoko Kagawa) discover their son is still at home, safe and well. It seems the kidnapper abducted their chauffeur’s son by mistake. Chief Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) and his able team arrive to find Gondo wracked with a moral dilemma. Should he safeguard his fortune or risk financial ruin to save another man’s son?
As the Japanese filmmaker most intrigued by western culture, Akira Kurosawa often looked to its literature, both classic and pulp, as a source for his cinema from Shakespeare to Dostoyevksy and in this instance, Ed McBain, the pseudonym used by author Evan Hunter. High and Low was loosely based on “King’s Ransom”, one of McBain’s 87th Precinct series of novels that had already reached the screen as Ransom! (1956) starring Glenn Ford and later served the basis for Ron Howard’s like-named thriller, Ransom (1996) with Mel Gibson. The actual Japanese title - Tengoku to jigoku - translates literally as “heaven and hell”, more befitting perhaps given Kurosawa takes viewers on a journey from the Olympian heights of Gondo’s pristine high-rise to the depths of a smog-shrouded cityscape and seedy bars inhabited by the frighteningly amoral kidnapper. On the other hand, the “westernized” title proves equally apt as even the kindly cops observe the sight of Gondo’s house high on a hilltop, seemingly looking down on the “little people” swarming below in an industrialized inferno, is enough to make anyone feel somewhat resentful.
Whilst taut and compelling, this is not your conventional thriller. Kurosawa confines two thirds of the action to Gondo’s house where his static master shots renders things somewhat stagebound yet yokes maximum tension. The central moral dilemma strips Gondo bare. Starting out as an upright if somewhat autocratic figure, he loses his wealth, his social status and job security, but rediscovers his humanity. As the detectives observe, Gondo goes from demigod to man. He earns their respect in the process and despite being callously cast aside by his corporate cronies, is embraced by the public as a national hero. “With men, it’s either win or lose”, Gondo advises his son in an early scene where he urges the boy to triumph even in something as simple as a game of cops and robbers. However, Kurosawa challenges this macho mentality, drawing canny parallels between corporate Japan and the politics of the feudal era which of course culminated in World War Two. He poses the question, is it more important to win or do what is right?
After the controlled claustrophobia of its first half, the second portion of the film explodes with restless energy. Kurosawa dissects the police investigation with rigorous detail, from forensics to audio analysis to good old fashioned detective work, whilst wry humour derived from the engagingly drawn cops leavens some of the more shocking images of urban hell, such as a visit to a drug den inhabited by near zombie-like hordes of pallid, dishevelled addicts. The film culminates in an unsettling confrontation between Gondo and the kidnapper wherein whatever moral victory can be discerned seems ambiguous. Some critics interpret the film as reflecting Kurosawa’s attitude towards the state of cinema and society in Sixties Japan, with the successful, implacable but dangerously aloof Gondo a stand-in for the director himself while his embittered antagonist represents the angry young men of the Japanese New Wave. There may be some truth to this given the kidnapper’s snarled statement towards the end (“Instead of well meant lies, I prefer the truth, no matter how cruel”) reads almost like a credo for Nagisa Oshima, Masahiro Shinoda and other such filmmakers who were openly disdainful of Kurosawa’s humanist ideals. It is worth noting, High and Low was Kurosawa’s last critical and commercial hit for two decades, during which the landscape of Japanese cinema shifted away from the humanism and romanticism that were his stock in trade. If Kurosawa did indeed intend High and Low to be interpreted in this way, there are regrettable traces of self-pity underlining the premise that point towards the despairing tone of his later work in the Eighties and Nineties.
Japanese director and writer, and one of the most important figures in 20th century cinema. Kurosawa was greatly influenced by Hollywood - John Ford being his idol - but more than any other film-maker was responsible for introducing Japanese films to West. He originally trained as an artist and worked as a studio scriptwriter, before directing his first film in 1943, the martial arts drama Judo Saga. Kurosawa's next few films were made during World War II and had to adhere to strict state guidelines; it was 1948's gangster movie Drunken Angel that first saw the director's emerging personal vision, and was his first film to star regular leading man Toshirô Mifune.
Rashomon was the film that brought Kurosawa acclaim in the West, winning top prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1951, and a string of classics followed - Throne of Blood, The Hidden Fortress, Yojimbo, Seven Samurai - all set in Feudal Japan and combining incredible cinematography and thrilling action with humour, sadness and deep insights into human behaviour. The director also turned in some superb non-period film around this time too, such as the thrillers The Bad Sleep Well and High and Low.
The following decade proved a frustrating one for Kurosawa, as he struggled to get projects off the ground, culminating with the box office failure of Dodesukaden and a suicide attempt in 1970. The director's fortunes turned when 1975's Russian epic Dersu Uzala won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, while his next two films were among his very best - the beautifully shot Kagemusha and 1985's spectacular, hugely successful King Lear adaptation, Ran. Kurosawa's final films were smaller and more personal - Dreams, Rhapsody in August and Not Yet. He died of a stroke in 1998, aged 88.