BrandonHabes’s review published on Letterboxd:
Did Kurosawa really make the precursor to BURNING and PARASITE? What a hefty, structurally daring work of art. I can't say that I particularly cared for all the meticulous police procedural plotting and noirish zig-zagging, but that's all genre distraction anyway in the service of something greater.
HIGH AND LOW (or HEAVEN AND HELL, the more Dante-inflected title) uses a kidnap thriller as a guise for exploring some pretty deep social hierarchies between groups of people.
The seductive pecking order gets lodged into a fractured narrative structure, creating two halves that work best when you see how they dialogue with one another. The first half keeps us high above the slums at a posh resort where a powerhouse executive makes risky deals to accelerate his wealth, but not before perpetuating the myth (to those "looking up") that his wealth makes him a stronger, more valuable member of society. The second half descends into the labyrinthine alleyways of skid row, a place riddled with junkies and blue-collar despair. Here, beneath the malfeasance of corporate climbing, the perspective is conditioned by anger and envy, selling the myth to a lowly criminal that self-realization is only possible if he wages war against anyone who appears to be "looking down" on him.
As it turns out, "Looking up" and "Looking down" are measured places of polar crises. "High" and "Low" are socioeconomic perspectives that Kurosawa never associates with an ethical valence, which is to say he doesn't conflate highness with heaven or lowness with hell. Instead, he allows these contraries to conflict and create tension in the minds of his characters in order to showcase the destructive nature of class disillusionment. We see this quite clearly in the relationship between Mr. Gondo, the wealthy industrialist, and Takeuchi, the barren criminal. Both get webbed into a mysterious backdrop of financial intrigue and social retribution, each playing their role in the larger class divide that made up postwar Japan.
There are interesting detours along the way that prepare us for what this story is really about, plot devices that ask us to look beyond them to the ultimate confrontation between both Mr. Gondo (the rich) and Takeuchi (the poor). Things like the kidnapping itself, or the moral dilemma Mr. Gondo is faced with, are ancillary setups.
The kidnapping, for example, sets up a "steal from the rich to feed the poor" philosophy, but it's actually more than that. Takeuchi doesn't just want ransom money. He wants to humiliate and destroy what Mr. Gondo represents in the wider class struggle. His strategy is almost intellectual, as if trying to make a political statement against corporate greed, but it backfires in a way he doesn't expect. Mr. Gondo, though tempted by his own affluence, ultimately makes the correct moral decision in the end, and the public applauds him for it. The irony? Takeuchi's entire scheme was built on the premise to abase the "high" and elevate the "low," but the plot turns Gondo into a hero (and makes him "higher") and Takeuchi into a villain (and makes him "lower"). Class warfare, in other words, is an illusion that weaponizes social status as the ultimate goal of humanity. Kurosawa debunks this myth by arguing that people will be judged according to their deeds, not by how much money they have in their bank account.
Actually, Gondo and Takeuchi are very similar to each other, just as the gangster and doctor are similar in DRUNKEN ANGEL, or the cop and robber are similar in STRAY DOG. With respects to social climbing, Gondo and Takeuchi are ascending the same ladder but from two different vantages. Gondo climbs what he believes will lead his family to a higher financial heaven, while Takeuchi looks up at Gondo's house and fortune from the slums below. "From my dirty little room, too cold to sleep in the winter, too hot to breathe in the summer, I could see your house and it was like looking up at heaven." It may appear heavenly from Takeuchi's perspective, but Gondo's wealth is actually a spiritual burden that almost threatens his very humanity. How else can we explain someone who nearly chooses money over the sanctity of human life? Takeuchi doesn't feel this wrestle. He sees only means and luxury. And he nourishes his envy of Gondo's goods to the point of hatred.
"I looked up at your house every day and somehow began to hate you. After a while it was hating you that kept me going."
Maybe the true villain of the story isn't wealth itself but the greed of wealth, similar to the corporate goons in THE BAD SLEEP WELL. Or perhaps even more fundamentally, maybe the true villain is, as Ritchie contends, making "the wrong choice at the moment of truth." Takeuchi's hatred of Gondo is a choice, just as Gondo not paying the ransom is a choice. We've seen these intense moral perplexities before in Kurosawa's work. Yukie, the refined bourgeoise in NO REGRETS OF OUR YOUTH, could have chosen to remain bourgeoise and not go full-blown peasant activist. Matsunagsa, the bad boy gangster in DRUNKEN ANGEL, could have preserved his hoodlum status and chosen not to become a redeemed anti-hero. In a different universe, born from different circumstances, the cop from STRAY DOG could've chosen the path of his existential criminal counterpart. In SEVEN SAMURAI, Kikuchiyo could have chosen the life of a farmer-turned-bandit rather than a farmer-turned-samurai.
To repeat Ritchie again, as I have in numerous reviews: "[Kurosawa] is not at all interested in what forces have made people what they are; he is completely interested in what people make out of what the forces have made of them."
This is the big theme of Kurosawa's work. And the big theme again in HIGH AND LOW. What do Gondo and Takeuchi make out of the social forces that surround them? In a deterministic world, the kind that the existentialists hated, the answer would be that the rich would always choose to get richer, and the poor would always look up to the rich with rivalry. There is actually no business reason why Gondo would pay the ransom. It would completely destroy his financial empire. But Kurosawa is more existentialist than determinist and argues that free will is a very real thing, maybe the most real thing, and that people who don't take responsibility for their choices under the pretext of social determinism are living in the matrix.
In Gondo, someone who fiercely wrestles with temptation but ultimately chooses humanity, the argument is clear: every person is responsible for their choices. In Takeushi, someone who could've chosen heaven but feels more comfortable in hell, the argument is clear: every person is responsible for their choices. Gondo materially ruins himself against the specters of greed and affluence, and gains his humanity. Takeushi spiritually ruins himself against his flesh-and-blood brothers and sisters, and loses his humanity.
Comparisons between "high" and "low," "heaven" and "hell," "reality" and "illusion" are so thoroughly enmeshed in this work that you might even mistake them as polar opposites. While there are certain poles to these terms, they have all but become meaningless to the characters in this story. As shown in the climatic jail sequence when a screen of glass and cage wire separates Gondo from Takeushi, the two prisoners of class can be seen in each other's reflection as if sharing the same identity. They talk about social status as though it were the phantom tangerine in BURNING, or the peach allergy in PARASITE. Takeushi weaponizes their similarities to convince Gondo he shares the same hatred as him: "I'm concerned with the truth, no matter how ugly…and you know something? I found out that people like me can have a lot of fun making people like you miserable." Takeushi is reverse-Ben, looking up rather than down. Gondo is convinced their differences don't even exist: "Why are you so convinced that it is right that we hate each other?" For all intents and purposes, these two could very well be alone just talking to themselves. It's a bold, challenging, enigmatic ending that judges its characters on the same social playground, but affirms only their choices have kept them apart. This is Kurosawa at his most Dostoevskian.