While most well known for his classic Japanese period dramas, such as Seven Samurai, Rashomon, and Throne Of Blood, the fact is that director Akira Kurosawa’s lasting legacy will be sustained by his towering achievements in then contemporary Japanese drama — films such as Ikiru, The Bad Sleep Well, and 1963’s black and white crime drama High And Low.
Words like masterpiece simply do not do justice to such wholly and uniquely great cinema. And it’s not the fact that Kurosawa was able to blend action, social, and other genre pieces, long associated with melodrama, with high and deep pure drama, but the fact that his ability to use radical means, quickly establish characterization and suspense, and add in true ethos and philosophy is nonpareil. Yes, other directors have done so working in manifest dramas — the best works of Yasujiro Ozu, Kenji Mizoguchi, Ingmar Bergman, Federico Fellini, Vittorio De Sica, Michelangelo Antonioni, Stanley Kubrick, and Woody Allen have achieved this, but only Kurosawa risked the disaster of pretension by mixing pulp fiction with art. Granted, early Martin Scorsese films come close, but Kurosawa is the master from whom Scorsese was weaned.
High And Low (Tengoku To Jigoku; literally Heaven And Hell) is a film that is so perfect in every detail it shows how utterly silly similar Hollywood takes on the matter are, and were: think Ron Howard’s and Mel Gibson’s silly 1996 flick Ransom, or any of Alfred Hitchcock’s crime dramas from the 1950s or 1960s. Yes, critics often resort to the copout that Hitchcock was not deep, but technically was great. True, to a degree, but one need only watch the rail car sequence in this film to see how staid, old fashioned, conservative, and utterly quaint Hitchcock’s ideas on crime were.
The truth is that Hitchcock really had no idea what drove criminals. Kurosawa did. To the Englishman, crimes were Freudian impelled, and committed by people with manifest things wrong with them. The claim he made was one merely had to be adept at spotting such things. Kurosawa shows that crime (as it does in reality) emerges from complex and obscure things. Its evildoers are often manifestly plain and their reasons never discernible. What drives High And Low to such greatness is that, even after all is revealed, the criminal apprehended, and the film at an end, the viewer is still pondering, in the best sense, and still unable to grasp how and why such a thing occurred. Yet, the film only gets to that point after peerless artistic and technical means.