High and Low (1963) Akira Kurosawa

Over the years I have read many books written by Ed McBain. His 87th Prescient series, generally considered the originator of the gritty police procedural, began in 1956 with “Cop-Hater”, his first novel in the long running series.  His last, “Fiddlers” was the 55th in the series.  McBain was also well known as Evan Hunter (his legal name, though his was born Salvatore Lombino), author of among other novels, “The Blackboard Jungle”, “Strangers When We Meet” and “Buddwing” all made into movies. As Evan Hunter, he also worked as a screenwriter most notably with Alfred Hitchcock on  “The Birds.”

 Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 film, “High and Low” is based on McBain’s 1959 87th Prescient novel, “King’s Ransom” and like the film it revolves around a child’s kidnapping, ransom and murder. For the most part Kurosawa has remained faithful to the novel though the main character Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) is certainly a more sympathetic and three dimensional figure than the novel’s Douglas King.

Gondo is a top executive at  a shoe company where he is involved in a power struggle with other executives who want to reduce the quality of the shoes they produce in order to increase profits. Secretively, Gondo is in the process of buying up enough stock in the company to avoid the other executives takeover. Instead, he is attempting to take over the company himself. However, to raise the money he has had to leverage everything he has including mortgaging his house, and putting his career on the line. Just as he is about to close the deal his son is kidnapped and much of the money he would use to buyout the company he is now prepared to use to save his son. He then finds out the kidnapper’s took the wrong kid. Instead of his son, they kidnapped his chauffeur’s young boy, and his son’s playmate. Gondo is now faced with a moral dilemma. Does he still pay off the kidnapper’s, saving the life of young boy, his chauffeur’s son, or use the money to close his big deal saving himself and family from financial ruin.

Kurosawa has taken a well written, though typical police procedural, and turned it into a complex moral quandary. When he believed the kidnapped boy was his, he was willing to sacrifice his career and financial wealth to save his child.  But once he discovered the wrong boy was taken, he backs off on paying the kidnapper’s. The risk, he says, is too high. If he pays it will mean financial ruin losing not just the opportunity to take over the company, but personal financial ruin. They will be broke, a situation his wife, who comes from a upper class background, never knew. Still for her, the child’s safety comes first. She doesn’t understand how Gondo, a loving father, can be so callous toward another’s child.

The film can be split into two acts, the first is a one set claustrophobic piece in Gondo’s expensive home that is located upon a hill overlooking the rest of the city. This entire first act focuses on the corporate wargames (Kurosawa arranges the actors like pieces on a chessboard), and the kidnapping. The second half of the film moves outside on to the gritty streets of Yokohama with twist and turns; a police procedural tossed inside out as the law begins to search for clues on how to catch the kidnappers and retrieves  Gondo’s ransom money, that  he finally agreed to pay. He needs it back in time for him to close his big financial deal. Kurosawa gives us a step by step narrative of the police investigation; how they build up enough detailed information finally identifying the kidnaper and then setting a trap.

What may sound like an episode of “Law and Order,” Kurosawa turned into a study on moral values, good and evil.  It is brilliantly presented with some scenes containing a film noirish bent (the Drug Alley scenes), while  others are  evocative of Hitchcock (the excellent bullet train sequence). Kurosawa’s camera placement is also that of a master. There is a memorable scene when Gondo throws his former right hand man out of his house after realizing he sold out to his business enemies. Kurosawa has Gondo camera right and up front, looming large, in this scene. Placed in the foreground throughout all this is Gondo’s chauffeur, the father of the kidnapped boy, with his head down, meek looking. This shot tells you all need to know about where the power lies, Gondo the big powerful corporate executive discussing paying the ransom or saving his business while their stands his servant/chauffeur, helpless, small, defeated father at the mercy of the strong, rich and powerful. Pitifully, at one point, the chauffeur even apologizes to Gondo for asking him to pay the ransom to save his son’s life.

Kurosawa has taken the basics of a standard police procedural and turned it into a vision of class distinction and resentment; rich versus poor, good versus evil, and the fact that nothing is simply black or white. As Gando, Toshiro Mifune reflects a character who is strong, powerful, loving, ruthless and helpless , a rollercoaster ride of emotions. Other fine performances include Tatsuya Nakadai as police detective Tokura and Takkashi Shimura, a Kurosawa regular.

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9 comments on “High and Low (1963) Akira Kurosawa

  1. This is a great movie. Thank you for writing this review – I hope it will bring this film to more people’s attention.

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  2. R. D. Finch says:

    John, a really well-written post that did justice to one of the great Kurosawa’s best movies. You covered just about everything I found noteworthy. This was one of the first Kurosawa movies with a modern setting and a crime/noir approach I saw and it was quite a surprise after seeing so many of his period and samurai pictures. He did this type of film from time to time throughout his long career and did them well, but I would say this is the best of them. And was Mifune ever anything less than brilliant when working with Kurosawa?

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    • John Greco says:

      Mifune is a brilliant actor with a powerful presence. They certainly rank up there with the best of the actor/director combinations. I have seem only about five or six of his films and really want to explore his work more.
      I found IKIRU and THE HIDDEN FORTRESS at one my the local libraries and plan to be checking them out soon.

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  3. Sam Juliano says:

    “Kurosawa has taken the basics of a standard police procedural and turned it into a vision of class distinction and resentment; rich versus poor, good versus evil, and the fact that nothing is simply black or white.”

    Aye John! Mifune’s greatest work for the most part was certainly for Kurosawa, though only recently did I discover one extraordinary performance for Kobayashi that matches his best overall. Nakadei is utterly brilliant as well. HIGH AND LOW is one of Kurosawa’s greatest achivements, a stark and humanistic thriller that as you astutely note is divided into two sections, with the first, that unforgettable extended (claustrophobic) segment that really sets this film apart in the Kurosawa (indeed Japanese cinema) pantheon. The film makes excellent use of wide screen composition.

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    • John Greco says:

      I have to say I fell deeply in love with this film. It contains so many elements that I admire and as I mentioned to R.D., Mifune and Kurosawa are one of the great teams in filmmaking. Plus that he used as source material an Ed McBain novel, an author (either as McBain or Evan Hunter) I have read more thatn thirty works of.

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  4. The Lady Eve says:

    I haven’t seen this film, John, but will now. I’ve seen only Kurosawa’s most well-known films – enough to realize how beautifully he and Mifune worked together.

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  5. […] -High and Low  (1963 – Akira Kurosawa) Based on American mystery writer Ed McBain’s novel, […]

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