Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low, a poor translation from what should actually be called Heaven and Hell, is loosely adapted from Edward McBain’s 1959 detective novel King’s Ransom. Kurosawa expands and elevates the procedural thriller by weaving in societal issues of then modern-day Japan.
During the opening credits, the film shows scenes from high above the city of Yokohama, which is the view Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) has from his mansion on the hill. He is meeting with fellow executives from National Shoes who want his assistance as a stockholder to force out the company’s founder. This will allow them to create a cheaper product and make more money. Even though Gondo agrees the founder is too conservative with the business, he disagrees with their plan because the new shoes will damage the company’s reputation. After the executives leave angered and disappointed, Gondo reveals his own stock-buying plan to take over the company. He has mortgaged everything owned by he and his wife to begin financing the deal, but still requires money made from his ownership of the company for the back end.
As Gondo prepares to send his assistant with a check for 50 million yen to start the transaction, he receives a phone call that his son has been kidnapped for a ransom of 30 million yen. It is soon discovered that Gondo’s son is safe and instead it is the son of Aoki the chauffeur who has been taken. Gondo assumes the boy will be returned safely since, as a chauffeur, Aoki doesn’t have that amount of money; however, the kidnapper doesn’t care. He still demands Gondo pay for the boy’s safe return and is emboldened because, with the boy not being related, the kidnapper can’t be charged with extortion, resulting in a lesser charge and sentence if caught. Gondo struggles with the decision between going ahead with his plans and calling the kidnapper’s bluff or risking the life he has grown accustomed to by paying the ransom and saving Aoki’s son.
Halfway through the film, Kurosawa changes his direction. The first half of High and Low is staged like a play. There are long takes as a few characters move throughout his spacious living room. Gondo’s moral dilemma is the central focus of the story. In the second half, a different film unfolds as the narrative descends to the streets of Yokohama and Gondo’s role is reduced. Kurosawa uses a lot of locations. Most of the scenes are busy with the frames filled with people and activity. The focus switches to the police working on the identity and arrest of the kidnappers.
The story resolves, making good points about the leniency of kidnapping and the destruction jealously and coveting wreaks, yet many questions are unanswered. Gondo is punished for the wealth he has accumulated, but he has come by it honestly, so why should he have to fall? He doesn’t need the luxuries he had as he starts his life over, but why is he not entitled to spend his money the way he sees fit? The film promotes anti-capitalism and anti-materialism, made clear by its depiction of businessmen, other than Gondo, as ruthless and cutthroat, a theme repeated from The Bad Sleep Well. There is no explanation other than Kurosawa sees a duty to the community overriding lifting oneself, which explains why Gondo chooses the boy’s life over his own financial well-being and why some police empathize with one kidnapper after seeing some conditions that drove him to resent Gondo.
Another societal issue dealt with in the Low/Hell section of the film is a very haunting sequence in place called “Drug Alley” where nameless addicts reside. It looks straight out of a horror film as the zombie-like junkies exist in a secluded part of town. It’s well known by cops ands crooks alike, yet ignored. Places like this exist in most major cities, which is an utter shame.
The Criterion Collection has always set a high bar for the DVD industry, so it should come as no surprise that their re-release of material is much more than what has unfortunately become the customary double-dip the studios have been foisting on the public. After 10 years on DVD, this new version of High and Low vastly improves upon its previous release. The video comes from a new, restored high-definition digital transfer and looks pristine. The audio from the original four-track is now surround sound. A booklet contains an essay about the film by Geoffrey O’Brien and an on-set account/Kurosawa interview by Donald Richie.
There are so many extras included that High and Low is now a two-DVD set to contain them all. Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa and a film professor at Virginia Tech, adds a great deal to the appreciation of the film with an insightful commentary track about its production, its themes, and Japanese society
On the second disc, Criterion continues its presentation of excerpts from Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create with 37 minutes that cover the making of High and Low. There is also a 30-minute interview with Mifune from a 1981 Japanese talk show Tetsuko no heya (Tetsuko’s Room). While the discussion doesn’t relate to High and Low and Kurosawa is rarely mentioned, it is still very interesting to learn about the man behind so many classic performances. A 2008 interview with Tsutomu Yamazaki, who played a kidnapper, was recorded for this release. It’s a much more detailed account of the production.
High and Low is a marvelous film that succeeds on many levels and is another example of Kurosawa’s brilliance as a director. The Criterion Collection presentation is once again a beauty to behold.