Part of the reason I started this blog is because I know that there are scores of wonderful movies out there in the depths of video stores, libraries, and the internet, and all they need is someone to champion them. Now I won't for a second pretend to be the only person or in the least bit unique for praising a film like Akira Kurosawa's HIGH AND LOW. In fact that are many, hundreds, thousands no doubt, of people who are more versed in Japanese films and have academic or more erudite opinions than myself. That being said, I love discovering older films that certainly deserve to be re-surfaced from time to time to the masses, before they are inevitably plunged back down into the annals of film history. And this video blog is also for the person who goes into the video store, scans the shelves, and proclaims "there are no good movies out right now!" to which I respond, there are thousands of fantastic movies out there, in fact, every single movie that has ever been out is out there, you just have to look past the new releases!
Which brings me to HIGH AND LOW. As I said, I won't claim to be The One who brings this to the masses, I just came across it and its praises on the Criterion Collection's website while browsing the film noir genre, and knowing what a tremendous filmmaker Akira Kurosawa is, as well as previous enjoying one of his other contemporarily set thrillers, I had a feeling I would enjoy this as well. The fact that it was yet another collaboration (I previously spoke fondly of them working together on THE BAD SLEEP WELL) with my now favorite Japanese actor, Toshiro Mifune, did not hurt either.
HIGH AND LOW tells the story of a kidnapping. Mifune stars as Kingo Gondo, a wealthy executive who is made responsible when a child is kidnapped. Gondo must determine whether or not to pay the astronomical ransom and face financial ruin, or to save the son of another man. What follows is the plotting of the exchange, the investigation, and the apprehension of the perpetrator. It is an incredibly well calculated and paced film. Kurosawa patiently plots the film, letting scenes take as long as they need to. It is almost as if his characters are real, fully rounded people who need time to process their decisions. It is really quite fantastic. Whereas in a more typical contemporary film, the executive might immediately decide to sacrifice his own wealth to save a child, I mean, of course! That is the only choice! But realistically a person faced with a decision of that magnitude, must surely weigh his own ruin, the futile end of decades of hard work, from beginning as a mere factory worker and his ascension to executive, to the level of comfort and lifestyle he has achieved. Kurosawa allows Gondo to come to his own conclusion in his own time.
Kurosawa's films are also known for their incredible shot composition. He is so conscious of his 2.35:1 wide screen frame (in "TOHOSCOPE!") and his characters are delicately placed like chess pieces to convey their relations towards each other, or their social or situational standing. Each character occupies his own space. Almost any frame of this film could be printed and hung on the wall as a work of art; they are so full of intent and emotion. It is positively inspiring.
And the content is compelling as well. In one sense, it is a rigid police procedural. We see the guts of the investigation: meetings, briefings, and the going-over of many details that clearly explain the conclusions the police arrive at. We also see them out in the field, scouting different locations or questioning witnesses they consider to be pieces of the puzzle in the apprehension of the criminals. If you are a fan of TV's Law and Order, this will look familiar! In another sense, HIGH AND LOW is an examination of the class disparity in post-war Japan, which the title is a reference to (in Japanese, it is translated directed as HEAVEN AND HELL). Gondo is a wealthy industrialist, whose house is perched atop a hill, overlooking the slums and factories of the city. We see both worlds; the high-rolling scotch whisky drinking executives in their mansions, and we see the drug-infested, putrid slums of the less fortunate.
Creeper in the bushes!
The last thing to mention, is that despite it's nearly 50-year age, this remains a riveting and at times downright exciting film (SEE: the bullet train sequence!). Now some, (not you, of course!) but some people, roll their eyes and turn away when they see either "black and white" or "foreign" or "1963" or "subtitles" and think it will be boring and I mean who wants to read a movie... but honestly, you will be surprised! Yes it is long, yes it is foreign, but it holds up tremendously. And that is a testament to Kurosawa's skill as a filmmaker, his eye for detail, and his penchant for storytelling. This is a story and a film that feels as fresh--fresher, even, if you consider it's age--to any number of police or crime thrillers of today. Have a look at HIGH AND LOW, and if you can try and see it on Criterion's new Blu-ray or DVD!