Akira Kurosawa is, by far, the most ubiquitous of Japan’s directors. Even as the 10th anniversary of his death approaches this September, his shadow still looms over the Japanese film industry. Not one filmmaker has stepped up to fill the vacuum created by his death. Even more surprising is that Kurosawa is the only Japanese director most film fans are aware of. Of course, hardcore cinephiles know Ozu, Mizoguchi, and Miike, but Kurosawa is the one who has crossed over into the collective consciousness of the West. But how deep is that knowledge of Kurosawa? While his most popular films remain Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and Ran (1985), Kurosawa’s oeuvre runs much deeper than Toshiro Mifune running about in his skivvies, slashing enemies with a sword, and screaming like a man possessed. Before Rashomon made the director an international star, Kurosawa directed a handful of modern films, such as the crime masterpieces Stray Dog and Drunken Angel.
After directing the one-two Samurai punch of Yojimbo (1961) and Sanjuro (1962), the director returned to modern Japan in 1963 with High and Low. Adapted from Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom (1959), a potboiler crime novel about a businessman who must choose whether or not to pony up money to rescue his chauffeur’s kidnapped son, Kurosawa transplants this pulpy tale into an exciting film that is part crime thriller and part social criticism. Though this was not the first time Kurosawa had adapted a Western author (Shakespeare and Dostoyevsky, among others, had been plumbed before), High and Low was the director’s first use of an American writer.
The film begins as shoe magnate Kingo Gordo (Mifune) is readying to takeover the company that has employed him for 30 years, using a series of Machiavellian maneuvers to become the majority shareholder. We learn quickly that, though Gordo is deeply committed to the quality of his products, he is also ruthless as a businessman. “Success isn’t worth losing your humanity,” his wife cautions towards the beginning of the film. But Gordo doesn't care; he wants to take control of National Shoes. But just as Gordo is set to acquire the majority of the shares, putting up all his property as collateral, his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped in a mistaken attempt to extort the richer man. Gordo then must decide either to lose everything to save the child or sacrifice the boy to keep his empire intact. In a performance that bridles the ferocity he so willingly displays in the samurai pictures, Mifune is both menacing and sympathetic as the cutthroat who must decide whether life or business is more important.
Beneath the kidnapping tale is a subtext of the struggle between rich and poor. Gordo, who lives in a mansion on a hill, paces in front of a massive picture window that overlooks the slums below. But while looking at the human wasteland below, the only problems he contemplates are his own. The cries of the poor do not reach him in his aerie. It’s hotter than hell below, the kidnapper claims during a telephone call. But Gordo cannot feel it in his air-conditioned paradise above. Even the police, working class themselves, do not initially sympathize with Gordo. Heading the search is Chief Detective Tokura, played by Tatsuya Nakadai, another Kurosawa stalwart. As the film shifts from the manse above to the hunt for the kidnapper on the streets below, the story becomes Tokura’s. His pursuit will take him to the seediest parts of Tokyo, away from the white paradise of Gordo’s home. We follow Tokura as he hunts the kidnapper from a brothel, to an alley lined with dope fiends (in a scene reminiscent of the agony expressed in butoh dance), to a dance hall where American sailors dance with Japanese women.
Unlike his earlier masterpiece Ikiru (1952) that dealt with a dying bureaucrat in post-War Japan, the influences of America are all over High and Low. Beyond the obvious scenes such as when Gordo’s son plays Cowboys and Indians with the soon-to-be kidnapped boy in the dance hall, many parts of the film play out like American police serials of the time. Kurosawa even elects to use an instrumental version of “It’s Now Or Never” during one scene. Although the Americans only occupied Okinawa after the war, nothing could stop the cultural occupation that surged into the creation of a powerhouse capitalist society. Kurosawa was, without a doubt, feeling the influences of America on Japan. With capitalism, the gap between “high” and “low” would only grow more expansive.
The film ends in a tense meeting between Gondo and the kidnapper. The criminal is unrepentant, his body movements and screams reminiscent of the spirits and ghouls that populate Kurosawa’s earlier, fabulist films. The two men stare at each other, and just like the climatic fight that ends Stray Dog, criminal and victim blend into one. But here one is isolated by his love of money and the other by his hatred of the hierarchical structure of society. Only wealth separates them. But is the kidnapper the real sociopath? Gondo’s cutthroat business practices are perfectly acceptable in this culture. It’s okay to take a man’s job, but not his life. You know which is the one behind bars.