High and Low

High and Low ★★★★½

This review may contain spoilers. I can handle the truth.

This review may contain spoilers.

First, I’d like to borrow some words from Hannibal Lecter. In The Silence of the Lambs, he says to Clarice: “We being by coveting what we see every day.” Vision brews desire. High and Low, in the visual medium of film, deftly understands the power of sight and how it comes to shape our inner desires. The kidnapper, Takeuchi, has a direct view of Gondo’s house— an image that he sees everyday. And each day, it burns itself into his mind, swelling from just another house into a symbol of something much, much bigger. “From my tiny room,” Takeuchi says to Gondo, “your house looked like heaven. Day by day I came to hate you more. It gave me a reason for living.” From the squalor of his small room, the sight of Gondo’s house becomes heaven itself. And looking at it becomes the act of looking upwards, of seeing an alternate future, a dream, a reality that is far, far better than the life he has. In this way, Takeuchi equates “higher” with “better” and “heaven” with “reality.” So when he visualizes Gondo’s house as a symbol of heaven, it brings an abstract, utopian ideal into conflict with a worldly reality. It anchors the idea of heaven onto a physical point, turning it into something that can be acted upon, influenced, even… brought down.  

The way Takeuchi is driven to extreme measures shows us the power of the gaze. It’s a sort of power that’s both created and reinforced by the economic system, which is why his line of sight to that lofty house inscribes a whole wealth of hidden forces. In particular, the system of capitalism favours profit over all else, with the assumption that the forces of innovation and competition will carry along ethics and empathy, like idle passengers brought along along for the ride by the engine of money. This assumption is not always (if ever) the case; and so inequality is inevitable, built into the system. The byproduct of this is that capitalism exercises its drive for money, and produces an excess of goods, which not everyone will have access to. But they can see those goods; they can see the reality that they can’t inhabit. And the capitalistic impulse thrives off of the power of this gaze, and the desire that it foments. It perpetuates itself from an excess of goods, and the constant state of wanting that this creates.

In the incessant drive for more profits, the system doesn’t foster empathy. But the individuals inside the system still have that choice. Gondo has this choice— and he chooses empathy. The way this is framed accentuates Kurosawa’s own existentialist philosophy, his way of saying that people are made from the choices that they make, and the actions that they take.  

In the riveting, enigmatic final confrontation between Gondo and Takeuchi, Gondo asks him: “Why do you think we have to hate each other?” Takeuchi replies, “I don’t know. I’m not interested in self-analysis. But I do know my room was so cold in winter and so hot in summer I couldn’t sleep.” Takeuchi’s hate isn’t personal; it’s stoked by the surrounding social forces. And it just so happens that his little window frames that hate and discharges it against the focal point of Gondo’s house. From Gondo’s perspective, in the height of that house, the city is flattened into a spread of anonymous buildings, a blandly repeating pattern. But from those below, from in those urban crevices— that single house is brought into stark focus, raised and enlarged into a recognizable feature. A beacon— or something to latch their blame onto.

The grand gesture of this film is the elegance of its structure, the balance between its perspectives. Its physical movement downwards into the city corresponds with a thematic movement, rotating around the axis of sight to give us a multi-faceted view of the characters, and the places they occupy in the urban landscape. All of a sudden, before you know what’s happened, you’ve been taken from the curtain-shrouded heights, through a tour of the city, and then plunged into the dark secrets of its hidden alleys, its alcoves of suffering and corners of despair. At its half-way point, the film deftly shifts from a claustrophobic drama into a sprawling police procedural. Yet in its whole, the film is composed with the same methodology of that police operation— formal, meticulous, detailed. Perhaps this can lend it to feel detached and distant, but it also works to elevate the experience into something much larger than its characters. Like a cinematic chessboard with a beating heart at its centre, High and Low is immensely in control of itself without ever losing sight of its human, emotional power.

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