Akira Kurosawa: High and Low (1963) - Can't Stop the Movies
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Akira Kurosawa: High and Low (1963)

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Eight plus years of Law and Order viewing have ripped away whatever real interest I could have in High and LowAkira Kurosawa’s ultimate police procedural plays to all of the strengths of his most notable previous,  the intermittently interesting Stray Dog, while abandoning any intriguing anchor or character of any sort less than halfway through the film.  Prior to then I am at least somewhat on-board with the shenanigans of Kingo Gondo, as symbolic a name I’ve heard in Kurosawa’s films.

Kingo, played with notable restraint by Toshiro Mifune, is a shoe executive sparring with his business partners on the best way to provide footwear to the future.  He wants an old-fashioned sturdy, but highly stylish model, they want a cheap brand they can change on the fly to suit the whims of the fashion community.  The intermingling of old and new with the clashes that come are not exactly new ideas for Kurosawa.  Then Kingo receives a call from a kidnapper saying that they have his son, but after a tense few seconds after the phone call ends he discovers it is no Kingo’s son the criminals have, but the son of his chauffer.  The ransom is the same either way, and after a long-discussed decision on whether to pay or not he lets the funds go and the rest of the film involves the police force’s attempt to find those responsible.

Kyle, High and Low bores me in a way few Kurosawa films do.  It’s not that the style isn’t there, but it feels like for the first half of the film he’s repeating the same shot of stern men standing around and then the second half a different array of now indistinguishable men fanning themselves.  At least during the “High” part of the film we have the always reliable Mifune to provide some sense of moral conflict.  Unfortunately to get there we have to go through almost twenty minutes of shoe negotiations that thrilled me as much as the opening scenes of The Bad Sleep Well did for you.But there was a movie that had several strong personalities to play against.  A moral idea, specifically how much is a human life worth, does not equal immediately strong characterization.  While Kingo is going through the motions of what to do with the money that was to secure his empire I am at somewhat interested.  Kingo’s hesitancy speaks volumes, especially since that money was going to buy his enemies out of the shoe empire he wants to reign over.  The first third or so, even with one of the most melodramatic shower scenes of all-time, is a fun wrestle over whose life should be ruined – his, or his lackey’s.

The same interest is not withheld through the second two-thirds of the movie dealing with the investigation to find out who kidnapped the child in the "Low" segments.  Most of the tension came from the unknown fate of the boy and whether Kingo would fork over the cash or not.  Once the boy is returned and the cash secured his fate is relegated to the tabloids which, despite Kurosawa’s fondness of filming them being thrown onto the ground, is treated as a subplot to a very routine investigation.  At this point in history we’ve seen some of the great mysteries of cinema unfold in The Maltese Falcon, M, or The Third ManHigh and Low differentiates itself with an obscene level of detail and zero characterization.

I’m sure there’s some point to be made about how the faceless masses end up making the most impact in the end, but from an engagement standpoint I just don’t care.  We’re treated to just about every step of the investigative process and while it’s a welcome treat to see it without the hypercutting of CSI the tension is gone.  Folks who get off on attention to detail this thorough will enjoy it but the nearly identical shots of the steamy underground capped off with a chase through what is simultaneously the most and least cliché’d jazz club of all time does not thrill me.

It’s not that I dislike High and Low, it’s still very stylish, but I wish someone took Kurosawa aside and said, “You know, not every part of an investigation is fertile cinematic ground.”Every so often, Kurosawa has a really weird tendency to fragment the narrative of his films through a sudden and unexpected shift in POV or structure. The shift in Ikiru was too much for me the first time I saw it, because I was so involved in Shimura's character that the sudden jump to drunken businessmen telling me about his last days took me out of the story. Ultimately, the structure of that movie works to provide a broader context to Watanabe's life and actions that deepens the meaning of the whole viewing experience, albeit by taking the audience out of the more intimate view of his life presented in the first acts—it's a potentially jarring shift, but necessary for the film to reach the greater level that Kurosawa's aspiring to.

With High and Low, however, the break in perspective and focus signals the start of a completely different movie. The police force's efforts to catch the kidnapper don't really bear on our concern for Kingo Gondo or his totally sweet name. Once he's released his secretly accumulated fortune to the kidnappers, sealing his family's poverty/modestly-less-filthy-rich-than-he-would-otherwise-have-been fate, the only route the movie could take to maintain our emotional investment would be to follow him closely as his almost-empire crumbles away around him. That could have made for a tremendous film.

Instead, we get some opening scenes that provide real tension and establish a complex moral problem, as well as a capably made and effective sequence of the ransom being paid, all followed by an interminable police briefing that, if my internal clock is correct, lasts for approximately 7 hours. What was Kurosawa thinking here? After endless reports from officers cataloguing the minute details of their investigation, we're treated to a bunch of vignettes cataloguing their investigation. I felt like I was watching a police training video.This section puts the movie into a sort of cinematic dive-bomb that it can't recover from, even when the final third switches gears again into a wonderfully atmospheric slow chase, during which we get to see the kidnapper in sparse but effective detail. Based on the mostly unearned ending, the movie that's laying in hiding here is really about two men—Gondo and the kidnapper—and not only the realms of society they occupy, but why. If Kurosawa wasn't so busy showing us what it's like to be a policeman, the strengths of the first and last segments could have maintained my interest despite the sudden shift. He'd still have had to spend some time actually investigating the moral and social questions he only hints at otherwise, but it would be a start.

It's interesting that you mention M, which features a spectacular city-wide manhunt and an ending set in an underground anti-subtlety chamber that Kurosawa would no doubt have appreciated. I think the main point where it sounds like you and I diverge on High and Low is that I really like the scenes of the police actually tracking the kidnapper at the end, primarily for that creepy sequence in the flophouse. Kurosawa has some fun with the soundtrack as junkies rise from the floor at the officers who follow the kidnapper inside, hissing noises making their way into the background music and effects. This is followed by an ominous shot later where he walks down a hall toward a woman suffering some serious withdrawal, and Kurosawa uses the reflection on his glasses to make it appear that his eyes are glowing.

As you mentioned, Kurosawa exercises his considerable command of setting and atmosphere to make these later parts fairly effective, and Tsutomu Yamazaki plays the kidnapper with a stylized menace and cold ruthlessness that goes a good way to break up the procedural monotony. More of Mifune and more of Yamazaki's criminal would have been welcome changes for me. For that matter, I'd have liked to see an expansion of the sneaky corporate intrigue we get in the first act of the movie, something realized more coherently in The Bad Sleep Well. Kurosawa appears to like businessmen about as much as I like Law and Order, which is none—procedurals for procedure's sake is boring, unless of course you're actually trying to learn to do something. Here it takes all the air out of the movie.I do love the bit of atmosphere we get at the end of the "Low" segment.  The way that the kidnapper looks with his glasses being the only visible part of his head as he approached reminded me a lot of what Robert Rodriguez did with Sin City.  If only there was a bit more style like that to the investigation the second half might have been spared.  Instead it's, as you sad, a dry instructional video.

It's a shame it turned out that way because Takashi Shimura is literally sitting right there when the vignettes begin.  We've already seen how he is able to anchor an otherwise dry procedural with Stray Dog.  Instead he just sits there watching everyone as the flashbacks pile on each other with no clear personality leading the bunch.  To be fair, it is a nice way of showing that investigations aren't ended by just one or two people (somewhat the antithesis of Law and Order in this respect) but without a strong personality guiding us through each of the flashbacks it quickly becomes a chore to get through.

We both prefer the first half but I think you'll see that it basically is a watered down version of The Bad Sleep Well.  It trudges about in a lot of the same moral quandaries with succession, backstabbing, and the media without any of the amazing sound design and atmospheric shots.  Kurosawa does get a number of great visuals in with the way Kingo dwarfs over his poor chauffeur but is brought down to his size as the business partners he was going to betray (and in turn betray him) slowly build in size.

All this said, I don't know how they could have continued the intriguing moral dilemma presented to Kingo from the first act into the investigation.  I love that Kingo is essentially forced to do the right thing because he was planning to screw over the business partners who were planning on doing the same to him.  It's a fun lesson in opportunistic morality that still ends up biting them in the long run since the press defends Kingo on something that they don't realize he was forced into.  In what turns out to be an overly long instructional video, at least there's some interest to cling to.You are correct that there's no way to maintain the moral conundrum of the initial setup into the investigation segments, which is why it's so curious to me that Kurosawa felt the need to switch gears so drastically. The most interesting things to me up front are the moments where Gondo's world is so clearly and bluntly defined by the way he and those around him discuss the money at stake. Only his wife remains committed to the idea that there should be no debate between money and the kidnapped boy's life—even the boy's father, Mifune's chauffeur, apologizes at one point for having asked Gondo to pay the ransom, ashamedly confessing that he hadn't thought of how a loss of the money would bring his employer professional financial trouble.

There's also the great brief moment where Gondo's opportunistic assistant cynically argues that he must pay the ransom because not paying will result in bad publicity that could destroy the company. These early conversations are handled almost completely flat and straight-faced, and the biting characterizations that come out of them are some of the sharpest we've seen from Kurosawa—but he doesn't go anywhere with them. It's a confusing abandonment of really fertile satirical and critical ground.

If there is real and true potential here, I think it's in the way these early scenes tease a more direct and severe criticism of a part of contemporary society than Kurosawa had dared try before. We have the indictment of ineffective and self-serving government bureaucracy in Ikiru and as you said, the world of dark corporate intrigue showcased in The Bad Sleep Well, but these films still use said environments as a backdrop to human drama. In High and Low, the drama wants to stem from the realization that people could be cast into such morally degenerate roles in the first place and tragedy that wreaks on everyone involved. Then it's just not.

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Next week: instructions on how to heal in the last film featuring Toshiro Mifune, Red Beard.

Posted by Andrew

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