High and Low

High and Low ★★★★★

The Ringer’s The Big Picture presents: ‘100 Years of Genius: The Toshiro Mifune Hall of Fame’

“Why should you and I hate each other?”

A work of structural and thematic brilliance, Akira Kurosawa’s ‘High and Low’ (or ‘heaven and hell,’ to preserve the literal meaning of its Japanese title) does not involve samurai or journeys into Japan’s distant past to create relevant historical parallels. Nor does it reformat a classical Shakespearian play into a pointedly Japanese tale. Adapted from Ed McBain’s novel King’s Ransom and released in 1963, the film considers a social and class divide present in postwar Japan, engaging its subject through that most Western of subgenres - the crime thriller. The separation of classes and polarity of wealth become the impetus of a mesmerizing and noirish procedural, which - through the course of a tense negotiation, breathless ransom payoff, and subsequent search - equalizes the film’s two divergent central characters.

In this way, ‘High and Low’ is structured as a series of polarities – choices and consequences, crime and punishment, privilege and poverty, good and evil – and accordingly, it is divided into two sections, each with a distinctive style. The first is a 53-minute potboiler set almost entirely in a single room and uses a sequence of long takes to show Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) struggling with an awful decision right in the claustrophobic presence of those who will be most affected by it. Though these scenes sound like filmed theater, Kurosawa makes them breathtakingly cinematic, filling each long take with a lot of dynamic movement across his CinemaScope frame. A brief linking episode on a train, shot hand-held and in real-time, races the film into its second half – the meticulous, high-stake police procedural through the ‘hell’ of sweltering Yokohama down below, moving much more frenetically that zigzags breathlessly from one lead to the next as it tightens the net on a suspected kidnapper with kinetic, fast cuts and multiple locations. Miraculously, ‘High and Low’ turns the mundane follow-through of police work into the stuff of white-knuckle suspense.

One of the remarkable things about the film is how those halves interact, as the suffocating tension of confinement gives way to the open air. There's a different kind of suspense in each situation, with the first half consumed in extended negotiation and plotting over the kidnapping, and the second half a race against the clock to hunt down the sociopath responsible. Through it all, Kurosawa analyzes the smallest possible details in laying out and cracking the case; in that sense, ‘High and Low’ is like a proto-‘Zodiac’ in its obsessive tracking of every lead, no matter how obscure or unpromising.

Shot in glorious stark blacks and whites, ‘High and Low’ is perhaps Kurosawa’s most visually evocative film - all done with an eye for detail, composition, and imagery that remains nearly unparalleled in cinema.