In an early scene in High and Low, Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) and his wife Reiko (Kyoko Kagawa) find their son and another boy playing some version of Cowboys and Indians, the Gondos’ son blasting away at his friend with a cap gun. Reiko is appalled at the violence, but Kingo encourages him. “A man must kill or be killed.” His wife’s response encapsulates the film’s central interrogation as she turns back to him and says, “Success isn’t worth losing your humanity.” She is of course speaking more of her husband than her pretend sheriff son. Kingo is a foreman in a major Japanese shoe manufacturer, a lifelong shoemaker and a partial owner of the corporation (13% according to a few other shareholders) and his own bid for success leads him to plan a power grab. The film opens as a tale of business intrigue, with the shareholders plotting to take over the company themselves with Kingo’s help, but Kingo soon dismisses the conspirators. After they leave, he reveals his own plan to his wife.
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima, Ejiro Hisaita, Akira Kurosawa, Evan Hunter (novel)
Producers: Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Tomoyuki Tanaka
Cinematographers: Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saito
Editor: Reiko Kaneko
Music: Masaru Sato
Cast: Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyôko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Isao Kimura, Kenjiro Ishiyama, Takeshi Kato, Takashi Shimura
Genre: Crime / Drama / Mystery/Noir
Premiere: March 1, 1963 – Japan
US Theatrical Release: November 26, 1963
US Distributor: Janus Films
But what seems to be a white-collar story of high finance soon morphs into something utterly different when Kingo gets a call telling him his son has been kidnapped. And, as his son walks back into the living room, now dressed as the outlaw instead of the sheriff, it becomes apparent that the kidnapper has snatched the wrong boy, and the complex situation presents itself. When the kidnapper demands a huge ransom for the boy’s safe return, what does Kingo Gondo do? It is, after all, someone else’s son who has been kidnapped, yet what amount of money is worth an innocent human life? Yet without this money, Kingo’s gambit to take over the shoe company will be a failure, and his prosperous family (living in an air-conditioned mountaintop mansion) will plummet into poverty. Here he must wrestle with the moral question he just posed with his son, is his success worth the death of this boy?
This complex scenario becomes the setting for one of the best police procedurals ever shot. The film centers primarily on the crime and its investigation, something like an episode of Law and Order, but everything else about it is as far from mundane evening television as is possible. The characters, victims, perpetrators, and police investigators are all purely drawn, competent, and devoted to their cause, making the story somewhat heartwarming as it unfolds, even with its violent nature. But Kurosawa’s intensity, his clear interest in burying and unearthing miniscule clues is absolutely gripping. Most of the 50s and 60s films about the “perfect crime” seem played out, like so much dated melodrama—even suspense masterworks like Hitchock’s Strangers on a Train are interesting because of their characters, not because of the unrolling murder mystery. Like early Sherlock Holmes mysteries where the murder is committed in the most specific, ingenious ways, these films feel like so much cerebral masturbation with little emotional substance—they feel like pulp “true crime” novels. Yet High and Low, which focuses almost exclusively on its crime, is so microscopically focused that the tiny clues and linkages are still exciting to behold. Its focus is not on the ingenuity of the criminal (though this one certainly is wily) as much as on the canniness of the investigation, and in so doing the film shucks genre constraints and becomes vastly more exciting.
Less gritty than most noirs, except for its brief forays into the “low” world of heroin addiction, High and Low feels more like Hitchcock than Howard Hawks or Billy Wilder, but maybe that feeling is due to how tightly everything is wound. As viewers, we piece together every tiny piece of evidence, puzzle over it, and have our moment of realization exactly in time with the detectives. The whole thing feels symphonic. It bears many hallmarks of the noir trade: a scene in a jazzy nightclub reminiscent of the famous one in The Maltese Falcon, people acting alone to uncover the secret outside of police involvement, murder, intrigue, and a sinister villain. But it has still more of Hitchcock about it: an exciting train sequence that echoes North by Northwest’s aesthetic, a cat and mouse chase through the streets of Tokyo, and even a Psycho-esque ending in which the kidnapper reveals the madness in his heart (yet fortunately without Psycho’s patronizing psychologist to explain it away). The whole amalgamation feels less like homage than simple mastery—as if Kurosawa decided one day that he ought to make a Hitchcock movie. And as with everything Kurosawa ever put his name on, the results are stunning.