David Wheeler’s review published on Letterboxd:
This 1963 Kurosawa crime drama stars Kurosawa regular, Toshiro Mifune, as wealthy shoe businessman, Kingo Gongo. Gongo, who owns a partial percentage of his business’ profits, bargains and debates with his peers in what direction the company should head in. His associate’s aim to capitalize and make their products cheaply resulting in the shoes being of a lesser craftsmanship, whereas Gongo wishes them to be made professionally and with the utmost quality, though the company’s future profits would be of a lesser value. Soon after the film’s opening deliberation, his son is targeted by a malicious kidnapper who seeks a large ransom. Yet, we soon find out the kidnapper mistakenly snatched the wrong child – they end up with the family chauffeur’s son. As a great testament to the film’s storytelling, we see Mifune’s character struggle with making a decision between the boy’s life or pay the ransom even though it would mean the end of his career, or the end of his humanity. Would his decisions have differed throughout the film if they had acquired his rightful son? This is a question, one of many, that arise while viewing this masterful drama.
There is a stark array of contrasting themes and images carefully, and with a keen artist’s touch, distributed throughout the framework of this film. In its original Japanese translation, Heaven and Hell, there is already present one of these contrasting ideals. The film’s heaven, a massive and looming mansion, is atop a great bluff overlooking the hell below, a scattered cluster of misshapen and dull looking houses. And perhaps even shown again later in the film with hell being a desolate and dark series of alleyways inhabited by junkies. There are, in fact, many polarizing themes in Kurosawa’s film: those of the rich and the poor, the big and the small, the right and the wrong, and of course, the highs and lows of it all. Perhaps at the forefront is the differences between the rich and the poor as we find out later the kidnapper is from the populace that lives below the mountaintop house. He describes the house as being something that taunts him his ever waking moment, as if it were a mocking beacon of wealth. We see the mansion in massive shots that showcase the large rooms. Then once we follow the kidnapper, it is tightly shot and almost claustrophobic.
What is most surprising in the film is what is often done very poorly in other films. In the film’s final act, the story shifts focus almost entirely from a drama concerning the family afflicted to a police procedural drama. We do not see Gongo’s family for quite some time as we follow the police investigating the kidnapping. This type of tonal shift can also be found in another Kurosawa film, Ikiru. We follow its terminally ill main character for much of the film and see him attempt and achieve a better life, only to have the film turn upon itself only to be left with what the film’s secondary and minor characters see of the main character during his funeral. What may be startling at first ends up working for the betterment of the film. It is as if there are two separate stories in one, yet here, together, formulating one singular story.
One of the more exquisite touchstones of the film is Kurosawa’s uncanny ability to use the camera as a character itself. There seems to always be a beginning, middle, and end to a particular scene – all of them perfectly illustrated by the subtle changes in the camera’s positioning and the blocking of the scene itself. In one early scene in the film, we see Chief Detective Tokura, played excellently by Tatsuya Nakadai (also a Kurosawa regular) discussing potential procedures pertaining to the kidnapper and ransom with Gongo while the chauffeur remains blocked and out of sight by another detective – the beginning. As the conversation goes on and they begin discussing the chauffeur’s son, the camera pans revealing the chauffeur, a meek man with his head bowed in sadness and despair. By this movement we can tell he about to enter the scene – the middle. The audience can sense a crescendo in Gongo’s conversation with the lead detective, our eyes naturally shifting back and forth between the chauffeur and the other two players, awaiting his moment to speak up. And of course, we have the end: the chauffeur finally breaking into the conversation. A story within a story. A beginning, middle, and the end.
If one were to think of director Akira Kurosawa, they could name nearly everyone of his films a masterpiece, and it comes without a doubt High and Low should be held aloft as one of them. This is not a film just about the story, it is also a film about the characters. Some films we follow for the story and the characters are mere pebbles floating down a stream of water, and others we watch the characters themselves react to the story instead of the story reacting to the characters. This film contains both. A collective study on the light and dark of humanity and the differences in social status, Kurosawa with great ease and great genius weaves together a story that ensnares and doesn’t let go until the film’s final and ultimate scene. Where most may think of Kurosawa as a samurai themed filmmaker (some of his films inhabiting the Japanese Edo period) he is just as much that as he is also a filmmaker who makes wonderful contemporary dramas. A man often accused by his Japanese colleagues as a ‘western’ filmmaker (obtaining stylistic filmmaking often seen in the west, i.e. American director, John Ford) – this should not be a accusation that needs attention. He is a filmmaker, and all filmmakers merely making moving pictures. Moving stories. Unbound by cultural walls, we all just make stories for all to see – the highs and the lows of moving fiction.