English Title: High and Low
Original Title: Tengoku to jigoku
Genre: Crime, Drama, Mystery
Director: Akira Kurosawa
loosely based on the novel KING’S RANSOM by Ed McBain
Music: Masaru Satô
In Akira Kurosawa’s HIGH AND LOW, a drawn-out, monochromatic (save one key scene with the lurid smoke) contemporary crime drama clocks in at 2 hours and 23 minutes, the story can be roughly divided into two parts, in the first half, Kurosawa forcibly broaches an existentialist moral conundrum to Kingo Gondo (Mifune, not unexpectedly brings forth the urgency and telling ambivalence to the fore), an executive of a major shoe company called National Shoes, just when he is ready to implement his clandestine leveraged buyout plan to gain control of the company against his rebarbative and avaricious fellow members of the board, who manifestly advocate manufacturing shoddy shoes in order to lower the cost and bring more financial gain, he receives an extortion call which claims that his son is being kidnapped, and he must pay a colossus amount of money in cash, which basically is all his saving including the mortgaged capitals for the buyout.
But subsequently, it transpires that the kidnapper has mistakenly kidnapped the son of his chauffeur Aoki (Sada), instead of his son, so he immediately seeks the assistance of the police force, lead by detective Tokura (Nakadai, charismatic, naturalistic and occasionally amusing), and believes that the abductor will release the kid after realizing his mistake. Nevertheless, the abductor perversely insists that the extortion is still on, and hangs Kingo out to dry: will he be willing to pay the ransom to save a kid whom he is not related? Especially, when the outcome will strip him of his position in the company, all the savings and put the family in heavy debt.
Kurosawa beautifully orchestrates a nexus of theatrical tableaux vivants inside his hill-top residence perfectly in line with film’s wide-screen capacity, to accentuate Kingo’s testing oscillation: Aoki pleads abjectly to save his son, Kingo’s wife Reiko (Kagawa) also takes Aoki’s side, urges him to pay the ransom since she thinks they are completely responsible for the kidnap, but Kingo obdurately refuses to compromise, until the next morning, a sudden epiphany precipitates him to make the right decision and then the story swerves briskly into the action of delivering the ransom, neatly fashioned with an ingenious wheeze on a moving train to make the transaction.
After that point, the film slowly shifts its focus from the Gondos to a forensic exposition of police procedural to track down the perpetrators, led by Tokura and his subordinates: detective Arai (Kimura) and Bos’n’ (Ishiyama). The devil is always in the details, and it needs strenuous collective endeavour to spot it, Kurosawa doesn’t flinch from laying out all the circumstantial steps of the investigation in front of audience, interlaced with extensive cutaways to explicate the process, it is amazingly engrossing because you are also in tandem investing yourself into combing through minute information and threads, without any narrative elision to spoil the fun, a feat rarely manoeuvred with such scope of realism in films, neither before nor after.
Before long, two dead accomplices are discovered and the film decisively discards its whodunit myth, then unexpectedly weaves a shrewd scheme into the plot, to inveigle the culprit to aggravate his wrongdoings (a trenchant point that extortion is under-punished in Japan’s penal system), also entering the picture is the leverage of public opinion and collaboration with media, the latter flouts its wonted negative standing and for once, functions as an entity with conscience and flexibility.
Finally, en route to the belated arrest, HIGH AND LOW takes a detour firstly into a nightclub mixed with foreigners and locals, then to the startling home-turf of drug addicts (peppered with strangely wry sketches of plainclothes trying to mingle with the zombie-alike, against a very impressionist setting), where it touches the lowest ground as an astute social commentary shedding lights on both polarities, “Heaven and Hell”, the literal translation of its Japanese title.
The film ends with a heightened juxtaposition of Kingo and the perturbed kidnapper in the prison, a mirrored vis-à-vis communication between the high and the low, then the film divulges the motive behind the crime: hatred springing from the disproportionate gap between rich and poor, but Kurosawa is too savvy to flog the dead horse, so in his usual flourish, he leaves the revelation at once surprising and rationalised, well done, again, maestro!