High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)
Toshirô Mifune (Kingo Gondo), Tatsuya Nakadai (Chief Detective Tokura), Kyôko Kagawa (Reiko Gondo), Tatsuya Mihashi (Kawanishi), Isao Kimura (Detective Arai), Kenjiro Ishiyama (Bos’n), Takeshi Katô (Detective Nakao), Takashi Shimura (Chief of Investigation Section), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Ginjirô Takeuchi). Screenplay by Ryûzô Kikushima, Eijirô Hisaita, Hideo Oguni, and Akira Kurosawa. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Rating: 12. Running time: 142 minutes.
High and Low is the original Ransom. Forget everything I said about that film, because after seeing this there’s no way I could possibly ever praise it even lukewarmly again. I probably couldn’t even watch Mel Gibson’s seemingly excellent performance without thinking back to Toshirô Mifune in this, who gives us a man infinitely more sophisticated than his blackmailed American counterpart. High and Low opens to a scene reminiscent of The Godfather, only this time the patriarchs meeting to discuss business are deciding on whether to catch up with the modernising high-heel shoe industry, not making a judgement on whether to enter narcotics. Gondo (Mifune) politely refuses, instead bizarrely insisting upon a categorical commitment to functional shoes. What’s important, however, is that this sets up a shareholder power struggle in a company we learn Gondo has dedicated his whole life to making great, before eventually aiming at owning it himself. All the money is in place for what amounts to a takeover bid. But then, along comes a kidnapping and subsequent moral demand, and it cuts into the very fabric of Gondo’s now torn self.
That sounds stupidly melodramatic, but it’s completely and perfectly true. Possibly the biggest question moral philosophers have grappled with throughout history is how we deal with the demands of impersonal, objective morality, given we also have personal concerns and relations that make us distinctively human. In other words, what matters more: buying your wife a diamond ring, or paying for a water well in Ethiopia? The good life, or the right life? Nietzsche opted for the former and Mill for the latter, whilst the likes of Plato and Kant denied the conflict even existed. Kurosawa, meanwhile, just gives us the best cinematic embodiment of the problem that is just about possible, by showing us someone who doesn’t have to only think about such things if he so wishes, but also has such a choice directly confronting him that means he must decide on a value and put it into practice immediately.
That choice is between sticking with his life project and buying control of the shoe company, or instead spending that money on the ransom demand put on his chauffeur’s son’s head. They were after his own son, and he makes it clear that if they had taken him he wouldn’t hesitate for a second about paying the money. But they accidentally took another boy, who Gondo does know personally and whose family is only tied up in the situation now because of the opportunity to exploit his wealth. If he tries to save the boy’s life, he also ensures his rivals take over the business he works for, and lead him to debt and ruin along the way. As Gondo puts it, ‘my work is part of me, without it I am dead.’ ‘Is it a crime to think of myself?’
As this dilemma unfolds, then, and Gondo battles between the right and good choice, Kurosawa constantly shows us everyone involved, their reactions always captured by the letterbox cinematography: his wife looking for and expecting action from sympathy, the chauffeur himself, eventually begging for the price for his son to be paid; and the detectives, giving their advice on what the most productive course of action would be. The only people involved we do not see are the kidnappers themselves, because Kurosawa isn’t interested in shooting a mediocre thriller or action film. He wants us to focus on the various reactions to the situation, and he probably also wants us to quietly admire the fact that Gondo opts for what is right over what is good.
Before this gets boring and aggravatingly obvious in its moralising, though, High and Low flips into what could almost be a follow up film given its totally switched perspective. This isn’t to say it evolves into the mundane thriller I just said Kurosawa will have despised, even if the focus swings from Gondo and his apartment to the police force and their attempts to recuperate his money. The point is that, whilst following the detectives, the emphasis is now not upon their potentially dangerous scenarios, but rather it is on their fascinatingly intelligent procedures, and the motivation behind their action.
The detectives are aware of exactly why they have to capture the kidnappers, and it’s not simply because kidnapping is a bad thing. They also appreciate the fact that, if done correctly, their job can help to harmonise and eradicate the dilemma Gondo had to face. By returning him the ransom, his life might remain good even when he opted for what appeared to be the polar opposite: the right. They even get the media to publish articles that derides the shoe company’s treatment of Gondo in light of his heroic sacrifice, inspiring public boycotts of its products and creating an environment in which Gondo’s act may be sufficiently and justifiably rewarded. Kurosawa, ultimately, decides it’s not to be, but that’s only to ensure his film doesn’t become soppily perfect and oblivious to reality. What it is optimistic about, however, is the potential for such scenarios to arise, when the police work how they do here.
There’s lots more to be said about High and Low. Just two examples: whilst Kurosawa stuck to black and white even though it was 1963 by now, there’s a devilishly clever and effective use of colour at one point, that’s both surprising and potent (and pink). If this wasn’t where the infamous red coat in Schindler’s List came from I’d be amazed. Also look out for what I’m guessing Tarantino got his inspiration from for the image of Mia in Pulp Fiction, passed out from a heroin overdose.
Ultimately, however, the film excels because of the strength of its story and the thought underlying it. Like Rashomon, Ikiru and seemingly every other Kurosawa film, there’s enough to be contemplated here to last a lifetime.
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Tags: akira kurosawa, bernard williams, ethics, ground projects, high and low, ikiru, mel gibson, mia wallace, nietzsche, plato, pulp fiction, quentin tarantino, ransom, rashomon, red coat, schindler's list, takashi shimura, Tatsuya Nakadai, the good life, the right life, Toshirô Mifune