High and Low

High and Low ★★★★★

Perfection in halves, possessing first the single-location mastery of Sidney Lumet's 12 Angry Men and later the tightly wound procedural of David Fincher's Zodiac. Kurosawa's ticking clock thriller is all the more enjoyable for its modernity, swapping out the historical epic for 1960s police detectives and conniving business tycoons. This is a post-war Japanese society now starkly adoptive of Western culture yet maintaining hallmarks of its rigid conservatism.

High and Low's bifurcated structure opens on a brilliant twist to the kidnapping plot, which in turn flips over a stone revealing a fantastic morality play. After a botched extortion attempt sees his chauffeur's son mistakenly kidnapped instead of his own, Toshiro Mifune's thunderous, nuanced performance takes center stage, as he weighs whether to pay a king's ransom for someone else's son and risk his livelihood in the process, or not pay at all and potentially seal the child's fate. On top of it all, Gondo (Mifune) has recently mortgaged everything in a clandestine bid to take a majority stake in his lucrative shoe company, leaving little bargaining means on the table.

As in contemporary torchbearers like Bong Joon Ho's Parasite, Kurosawa's scope is fixed firmly on class in High and Low, savagely critiquing the luxuries and unscrupulousness of the vultures on the hill vs. the relative squalor of laboring men and women in the shacks below. Mifune's Gondo represents the war for the soul of the social elite, and its path to redemption amidst unflappable moral crisis. The kidnapper is then a perverse inversion, a working man whose jealousy and enmity of his wealthy overlords has been maximally deranged. Interestingly, as we will see the kidnapper may be an intelligent monster, but he is also not the Devil. And this distinction likely leads to his downfall.

There are many narrative pleasures to be found in High and Low, amongst them the breathless Hitchcockian train swap, the undercover pursuits into jiving dance bars and putrid heroin dens, the methodologies of a smart, humane law enforcement, the hollow, radiant beacons reflected in the deep black of the kidnapper's sunglasses. It's endless. But as this is a Kurosawa film, there is also a rich marrow inside its bones. The final confrontation between Gondo and the kidnapper is electric, and a fitting summation of the film's themes. Smuggled in with the antagonist's depravity is an accentuation of their divide in extremis, the mesh between them a barrier separating what has been gained and what has been lost. As our villain is dragged off rightly toward his just ends, only a reflection remains. It's the look of a man broken to his foundation, yet realizing there lies at that foundation a sterner, more dignified stuff that belies its former caricature. Powerful.

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