To this day, Akira Kurosawa is undoubtedly the most influential non-Western filmmaker in the world, and definitely the most celebrated from Japan. In fact, by the time you are typically exposed to his work, you will have already seen the films of dozens of American directors borrowing freely from his style, particularly from the 1970s. He is also accused, or maybe criticized is a better word, of being overly influenced by Western culture and too entrenched in Hollywood’s cinematic conventions, especially when compared to his younger, more radical peers, Suzuki and Oshima. Much of this is a by-product of Kurosawa’s subtlety, which can often serve to mask deeper meanings; some key point that other directors would belabor to death, Kurosawa will pass over in a flash, maybe as bits of dialogue between actors. Above all, Kurosawa asserted, film is about telling a good story, and his career-long obsessions with authority, conflicts of conscience, and the “darkness of the human heart” (to use his phrase) all come into play brilliantly in High and Low, what I consider to be the finest film of his career.
The Japanese title, Tengoku to Jigoku, is more accurately translated as Heaven and Hell, and it is here that Kurosawa sets up the dichotomy that will define this film. They are themes visited earlier in both Drunken Angel (1948) and Stray Dog (1949), mainly, the precarious chasm between the haves and have-nots. But whereas these early film-noir works reflect more haves than have-nots and are driven by narrative’s from the perspective of the marginalized and disenfranchised, High and Low–a creation of the fully modernized “success” story of postwar Japan, and from an older Kurosawa–takes a different approach. Although quick to praise and cherish his Western influences, he was careful to differentiate between respect for its cultural movements and blind acceptance of its economic and political institutions, which he felt too often led to inequality and social strife. What was unique about Kurosawa was his ability to empathize with the humanity on both sides, to have his characters undergo transformations through struggles and suffering, and nowhere does he do this better than High and Low, which is essentially a simple kidnapping/ransom scenario, adapted from an American crime novel, King’s Ransom by Ed McBain.
Kurosawa’s selection of this source work is interesting given the events going on in Japan at that time. In the years leading up to the film’s release, several high-profile child abductions and/or murders had galvanized the nation and highlighted serious shortcomings in Japan’s archaic penal code, which had undergone only small alterations since 1907. Specifically, “simple kidnapping” was punishable by a mere 1-5 year prison term. Furthermore, this was often applied unevenly and reflected certain class/gender biases that had been shifting but ever-present in Japan since the days of the Shogunate. Kurosawa came down firmly on the side of the reformists, and High and Low can be seen as both a great crime film and a topical vehicle reflecting broader civic concerns within the Japan of 1963.
The novel itself is boilerplate, its characters cardboard: the criminal is punished, the wealthy protagonist’s dogged determination wins the day, his business and wealth restored, etc. Kurosawa takes these clichés and twists them into a massive tapestry of Japan during modern/westernization. A Marxist when he was younger, Kurosawa was disheartened by the capitalist transformation and how it was eroding empathy between the classes. Mifune, a fixture in most of Kurosawa’s films since Seven Samurai, does an incredible job playing the stern artisan still trying to hold true to his ideals in a culture now preoccupied with profit margins, not true craftsmanship. Heat permeates the film, and Kurosawa often juxtaposes this air-conditioned industrialist on the hill (less than 1% of homes in Japan had air conditioning in ’63) to the miserable and desperate man in the hovel below. At the novel’s end point, the film is only half over, Kurosawa boldly changing track, switching protagonists altogether, and focusing intensely on the police as they track the kidnapper, who spirals into chaos. The final scene is handled masterfully, its lack of resolution and absence of easy answers at the very center of Kurosawa’s “darkness of the human heart.”
In closing, a word should be said about the film’s most profound technical achievement: cinematography. It was the first time Kurosawa worked with the TohoScope aspect ratio, and even today, High and Low remains one of the most striking films ever to use widescreen. Actor movements and camera angles were coordinated and blocked meticulously, particularly in the first half inside Mifune’s home, where some shots last as long as five minutes of continuous, unbroken interaction between the cast. It is a true testament to the days when widescreen meant something besides “just more.”