High and Low

High and Low ★★★★★

Film 21/30 - March Around the World 2020 - Japan

Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low starts narrowly and then opens up, unfolding to reveal surprising layers of narrative and thematic complexity. I knew very little of the film going in, and was repeatedly caught by surprise and drawn in by its sinuous storytelling. By the film’s end I felt I had just watched a masterclass in directorial control. I’d been so gripped I hadn’t even noticed my son arrive home, say g’day, and sit on the chair behind me for half an hour before going up to his room. 

The film initially focuses on Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), a senior executive in a shoe manufacturing company. He is hosting a meeting in his home with his peers who are plotting a corporate takeover. However, Gondo stands aside refusing to participate in their schemes to their significant displeasure. It appears at this early stage that we are being set up for a corporate showdown, with the battle lines being drawn over differing ideologies relating to quality and greed. Gondo, for his part, claims to respect a noble tradition learned from his early days as a shoemaker apprentice, while the others are intent on making cheap and short-lasting imitations, as a means of maximising turnover. 

Shortly after the frustrated men leave the apartment Gondo reveals to his wife that he has in fact been mortgaging all of their assets in order to increase his shareholding in the company, and that he is planning a takeover of his own. It is a high risk ploy, and within minutes it comes crashing down when he receives a phone call from a stranger claiming to have kidnapped his son and seeking a large ransom in exchange for his return. 

At this stage I thought I knew where the film was going, and I was settling in for a nice tense thriller poised around the rescue of Gondo’s child and the success of his business deal, but that is not what Kurosawa has in mind. With graceful precision, he extends the story’s reach into themes such as the power imbalances of social stratification, the economic price and personal cost of morality, the ruthlessness of capitalism, the politics of public opinion and the decay of social order through the insidious effects of inequality. 

And in exploring these themes, the focus of the story shifts away from Gondo to the police in charge of the investigation and on to the kidnapper, in addition to spending time with some of the other characters. The fluid shifts of perspective add layers to the story without ever disrupting clarity, and they give the film an air of literary expansiveness. 

The broadening of the story is also reflected in the film’s treatment of location. The first 55 minutes could have been staged as a play, with its action confined to Gondo’s high-rise apartment. But from this eagle’s nest, the film then spirals down and out through the police headquarters to the city’s streets and slums, and out further via its arterial train lines to the Japanese coast. Every location is expertly exploited for its dramatic tension and atmospheric potential. 

I found it fascinating to think that Kurosawa’s source for the film was a work of American pulp fiction called King’s Ransom, by Ed McBain. The director really elevates the source into a complex and nuanced story and character study, and in doing so offers a stinging critique of social malaise under capitalism. The title, High and Low, reflects Gondo’s fall, as well as the gap between the haves and have nots. Stripped of its artistic qualities, it is a cold, cruel tale that smoulders with the hatred born of inequality. And because of that, and despite its vintage and setting, the film retains a contemporary and universal vitality.

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