In 1963 Kurosawa would for the last time return to the noir.
High and Low was adapted from the American novel King's Ransom by Ed McBain. Kurosawa made the film for two main reasons.
The first of these was a reaction to what he saw as leniency on the part of the Japanese justice system towards kidnappers. He felt that their sentences were too light, a topic that would be brought up several times throughout the film.
The second reason was his interest in one aspect of the McBain novel. Kurosawa was interested by the thought that a person could essentially kidnap anyone, and demand a ransom from someone even if they weren't related.
High and Low (literally translated from Japanese to Heaven and Hell) may not present such a harsh portrayal of corporate greed like that seen in The Bad Sleep Well, but it remains a first-rate thriller and an eye-opening account of class difference in post-war Japan.
High and Low is split up into two parts. The first half of the film revolves around reclaiming the kidnapped child, while the second half is essentially a detective story that centers around the police tracking down the kidnapper.
As the film opens we meet Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), a wealthy shoe executive who is being confronted by several other directors attempting to get him to go along with their scheme to take over the company.
What the men don't know is that Gondo has a plan to take over the company himself. Just when Gondo's deal is about to be finalized he receives a telephone call from a man claiming to have kidnapped his son.
When Gondo's son returns a minute later they realize the kidnapper in fact kidnapped the son of Gondo's chauffeur.
Gondo is forced between paying the kidnapper, thereby losing all of the money he has borrowed to take over the company, or taking a chance and hoping the kidnapper doesn't kill the boy.
With some convincing by his wife and the pleas of Aoki, the chauffeur, Gondo pays the money and the child is returned after a thrilling scene on a train.
The second act follows the police, led by Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai). Through diligent police work they eventually track down the young kidnapper and apprehend him.
The final scene sees Gondo and Takeuchi, the kidnapper, confront each other just prior to his execution.
In his modern day films Kurosawa tends to focus on what he believes is a problem with Japanese society. These social ills take the form of the tabloid press in Scandal, the bureaucratic machine in Ikiru, and the long line of corruption in The Bad Sleep Well.
In High and Low Kurosawa tackles a wide range of subjects.
While Kurosawa doesn't focus so much on corporate greed after the kidnapper enters the film, the topic still lingers throughout the film.
Capitalism is clearly not something that Kurosawa looks on to fondly. Most of the businessmen in his films, especially this one, are looking out for their own good while trying to scam the public at the same time.
The other executives try to get Gondo to help them produce a new type of shoe that would cut costs dramatically. In one of Gondo's few emotional outbursts he tears apart the shoe, telling the men that the public won't be ripped off while he's a part of the company.
This attitude toward capitalism seems to go hand in hand with Kurosawa's feelings toward American and the influence the country had exerted over his own. Kurosawa's nods toward these influences are often subtle.
The two young children dress up as a cowboy and a sheriff and run around the house shooting each other with fake guns. Here is the influence the U.S. has had on Japanese youth.
The greater example occurs in the red-light district of the city when the police are tailing the kidnapper Takeuchi.
In one scene they enter a loud and crowded bar filled with Americans. The signs in the bar advertise American drinks, spelled in English. Even the music blaring from the jukebox showcases Americas invasion of the country.
While it may not be the most important aspect of the film, Kurosawa wants to show us that the country's ills can all be boiled down to what his countrymen have allowed to happen.
Kurosawa's treatment of the kidnapper is an interesting one. While everyone in the film seems to agree that kidnappers get off far too easily with light sentences, there are often moments where the audience feels sympathy for the kidnapper.
The police and Gondo alike imagine the kidnapper is a crazed maniac, but when we meet him in the second half of the film we see that he is far from the image created for us in the first half.
Kurosawa has a tendency to sympathize with his antagonists, most notably in Drunken Angel. High and Low presents a similar situation.
After we learn a bit about the kidnapper, we begin to see things from his point of view. This is where the most important theme of the film comes into play, the difference between those up high and those down low.
The directly translated title Heaven and Hell would have made the film's message far clearer and perhaps more affective than High and Low.
From the first shot this difference is established. By using the windows of Gondo's home, Kurosawa separates the high world from the low.
The first half of the film takes place entirely in the "high" of Gondo's luxury home. His home is, of course, high up on a hill overlooking the ugly streets below. The home is incredibly colorless and besides a small golden clock, lacks any sort of human touch to it.
One could easily compare the home to an earthly heaven. The home is also dead silent when no one is speaking.
Kurosawa further separates Gondo's world and the world of the low when Gondo himself opens a door to the outdoors. When he does so a flood of sounds from below come through into the home, and a silenced just as quickly when he shuts the door again.
The transition from high and low comes when the police begin their investigation. The camera follows two police officers for a short while before locking on to a reflection in a heavily polluted river. Here we meet the kidnapper.
We follow him to his home where he opens a window overlooking Gondo's house. Shot from a low angle to accentuate the difference in elevation between the two men, the audience can't help but empathize with this man who has to live every day in squalor while staring up at Gondo's luxurious home.
The feeling that the audience most assuredly feels is not held by any other characters in the film, except perhaps Gondo in the final confrontation scene.
The police are more concerned with vengeance for Gondo than anything else. Even though Gondo was hell bent on not giving into the kidnapper by paying the money, after he does eventually pay and his life is ruined, the cops easily change their minds about him.
The turning point occurs when the police are struggling to find a way to hide two capsules in the bags full of money (more on one of those capsules later). Gondo takes it upon himself and gets his hands dirty by breaking out his old tool kit and hides the capsules himself while the rest of the room stands in awe.
The police are so consumed with catching the kidnapper that they don't even care when he tests out drugs on a junkie from the real "hell" of the city, "Dope Alley" as the police call it. These are clearly the true forgotten people of Japan.
Gondo himself goes through a startling transformation throughout the film. In the beginning he is calm and in control. He sits leisurely while smoking a cigarette. When the kidnapper calls his wall of security begins crumbling down. He is no longer in control.
He begins to pace around his room. He distances himself from the others, especially Aoki, as evidenced when, as Aoki begs him to pay the money Gondo hugs the wall of the room in a futile attempt to escape the situation.
Later Gondo is seen mowing his lawn in a trance-like state. Without anything else to do, Gondo has resolved to doing the only thing he can by looking after his home.
Finally in the confrontation scene we see a completely broken down Gondo. He shows little emotion during his conversation with the kidnapper. He even begins to sympathize with him, a fact Takeuchi cannot stand.
Kurosawa does a most interesting thing in this scene by reflecting the two men's faces in the glass. Takeuchi tells Gondo how bad his life has been, and when Gondo asks if it was really that bad, Takeuchi breaks down. Perhaps Gondo feels the same way about his life prior to his dealings.
These men have more in common than they know, and Kurosawa wants to show us this. He has spent most of the film showcasing the contrast between the high and the low, but what he really wants to say is that everyone should be treated equally. This again is the main overarching theme of his entire career. "Why can't people get along together?," he asks us.
As noted in the Sanjuro post, Kurosawa wanted to inject a bit of color into that film, but couldn't because of the limited technology.
In High and Low one of the capsules that Gondo hides in the briefcase full of money is supposed to turn the smoke pink. When the kidnapper eventually burns the bags, pink smoke is seen from the Gondo home.
While it doesn't contribute much to the film, the effect is an interesting one.
Musically, Kurosawa once again returns to his concept of counterpoint, most noticeably when the kidnapper is finally caught.
As he approaches the home of his two accomplices he aims to kill, loud salsa-type music is heard over a radio. When the police ambush him the music continues. The contrast between sound an image is perhaps Kurosawa's most effective use of the technique.
High and Low is as great a noir as his first. More than any film before it, Kurosawa seamlessly blends entertainment with ideology in a way that only a great director could.