Kurosawa Diary, Part 21: High and Low

After two detours into early Kurosawa films I couldn’t catch the first time around (see this and that), I’m finally back to the main point of what this Kurosawa Diary project: an examination of all of his films in chronological order. And what a relief that is—returning from the uneven (and often dreadful) quality of his early work to the master at the height of his power.

High and Low was the last and best or Kurosawa’s contemporary crime dramas, topping Drunken Angel, Stray Dog, and The Bad Sleep Well. When a kidnapper grabs the wrong child—not the son of a wealthy industrialist but of the industrialist’s chauffer—he still insists on the outrageously-high ransom. The timing couldn’t be worse for the industrialist (Toshiro Mifune). About to lose his position in the company he’s devoted his life to, he’s mortgaged everything he owns to buy enough stock to take over the business. Now he’s being asked to forfeit his wealth and his career to save someone else’s child.

Mifune plays a good capitalist here—or at least the not-so-bad one. An artisanhighandlow who’s worked his way to up an executive position, he’s fighting for his corporate survival because he refuses to give up quality products in pursuit of quick profits. And while some of his business practices seem ruthless, they’re positively saintly compared to those of his rivals. Kurosawa and Mifune make us feel his moral dilemma acutely; in that unlikely situation, I could easily see myself behaving the same way.

The original Japanese title translates as Heaven and Hell, and Kurosawa sets the film in both locations (figuratively speaking, of course). The first 55 minutes take place in the industrialist’s expensive, mountaintop home overlooking Yokohama. Filmmakers should study this section, which never leaves the house and seldom moves out of the living room. No one else, before or since, has used the widescreen so brilliantly in a confined location.

Then, after nearly an hour of confined space, the story takes us to a speeding train for a short, fast, and suspenseful scene. The rest of the film—more than half of the total running time—takes place mostly in the hot, teeming, hellish city below, as teams of detectives track down the kidnapper. By the climax, we’ve delved into the world of cheap whores and heroin addicts.

Kurosawa always refused to let us see criminals sympathetically—to the point where their motives can become unclear. That’s the case here, where the kidnapper seems brilliant, psychotic, crazy, and just plain evil. The police are all virtuous, and talk about making sure this lunatic gets the death penalty.

But Mifune’s industrialist remains the film’s true center—a good man driven to do bad things for good reasons, suddenly faced with a lose-lose moral dilemma. That performance, combined with Kurosawa’s brilliant techniques for building and holding suspense, make High and Low a masterpiece.

Next up: Red Beard.