Written by: Ryūzō Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Eijiro Hisaita, Akira Kurosawa
Starring: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyōko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Yutaka Sada
The concerns of the rich typically feel like a breeze to the poor as they have more pressing issues on their mind, like ensuring they have food and shelter. A dynamic pushing forward the dueling narratives in High and Low where it has Kurosawa playing in a modern landscape where income inequality pushes these two classes together. Merging both of the narratives demonstrates this director’s legendary capabilities and creates a tense and completely immersive tale.
In the effort of taking control of National Shoes, businessman Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) learns that his driver’s son has mistakenly been kidnapped for ransom instead of his own son. With the kidnapper still insisting Gondo pay them in full for the child, he faces the moral dilemma of helping pay to free a kid who’s not his or sink into financial ruin should he utilize these funds this way.
Morals, ethics, money, class, and status all get a deep dive in the endlessly thrilling High and Low. A film split into two distinct styles as referenced in the title and combining them to create one exceptional story with so much intrigue and plenty to say about the economic structure in Japan. Starting out with a kidnapping tale, Gondo must make a very difficult decision, which almost coincidentally lines up with plenty of tension in his workplace with different individuals trying to take full control of National Shoes. He believes to have everything figured out only for this kidnapping to pretty much throw a wrench in it all. The choice essentially becomes: he either pays and financially ruins himself or lets the child die and ensures he succeeds in taking over National Shoes. It would be one thing if it were his son taken seeing as he admittedly would have paid the money immediately, but the fact his driver’s son ended up being the child taken means he would sacrifice everything for someone who’s not even his own kin.
Such a tough decision for him to make and one the film smartly utilizes to show the true character of this man. The second half then shifts into the police hunt for the kidnapper, which involves plenty of shop talk about the investigation but seeing them put together all of the information in order to find the person responsible has its thrilling moments. All of this gets assisted by the impeccable direction by Kurosawa and the cinematography by Asakazu Nakai and Takao Saito.
This narrative as a whole sheds light on the economic divide between the poor and rich in Japan and the lighting aids in this presentation. When watching scenes in Gondo’s home, the brightness of the setting with the furniture, walls, and sunlight coming through makes it difficult to even follow the subtitles. It left me questioning why they would choose white as the outline for the words and it all became explicitly clear when it switches to the second half where we go from the high to the low. Traveling down from the house literally on top of a hill, the police investigation takes us where the less wealthy individuals reside. Instead of blinding whites, the color black gets emphasized through the cinematography, which allows the white subtitles to be more than legible but highlighting we’ve entered a different place even with being just down the hill from the Gondo residence. A gradual switch but when it occurs, it demonstrates exactly what Kurosawa wanted to convey in this feature. The moments in the “low” are absolutely dazzling on a visual level with one of the best sequences occurring in a dance club where the police pursue the individual they believe to be responsible for the kidnapping. A sequence demonstrating how much the cinematography seeks to accentuate the color black. Along with what occurs in the scene, it’s nearly breathtaking in how it all comes together. Genuinely thrilling in its execution.
Through all the threats made by all parties throughout, this remains an issue about the rich and the poor, or the haves and the have nots. This ultimately dictates the initiating crime and why the decision to whether or not pay the ransom because integral for Gondo. The economical dynamics come into play even within the Gondo household as the patriarch built himself from the ground up in order to have the success he has been enjoying at National Shoes. This becomes one of the central arguments he has with his wife, who insists they pay the ransom immediately. She even states it would be fine for them to start over from the bottom, but it then gets revealed she came from money and has no idea what it means. Gondo certainly does and even calls her out for it. Money represents so much for the opportunities it provides and the amenities that come with it and all of it comes into question as the narrative pushes on.
It does feel redundant to state Toshiro Mifune was incredible in another Kurosawa film because the man never phones it in, but I particularly enjoy what he does with this character of Gondo. Yes, he puts in his shouty performance here but he handles the moral anguish of this man with a specific subtlety he does not always utilize. This particular pain rests on his face like a parasite trying to take everything away from him. Whether or not Gondo will actually pay the ransom or not does not become clear until he specifically states it and part of the reason why we’re left in suspense comes from Mifune’s conflicted performance.
Two types of tales mashed into one with opposing visual styles and texture, High and Low simply dazzles. The moral anguish on display demonstrates the struggle Gondo must come through and the second half then thrills with the chase to find the person responsible. Connecting between the two never gets lost and their complement allows for a strong overall look of the thematic message Kurosawa sought to share with this piece of cinematic treasure. Effortlessly thrilling and jam-packed with moments that took me aback, which comes to no surprise seeing as one of the greatest filmmakers pieced it all together.