High and Low: An analysis of Akira Kurosawa’s meticulously crafted cat-and-mouse thriller

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In their penultimate film together as director and muse, Akira Kurosawa cast Toshiro Mifune as Kingo Gondo, an executive of a shoe company who is caught in an extremely challenging moral crisis. It all begins with a phone call from an unseen psychopath who claims to have kidnapped his son and demands a ransom of 30 million yen. But after a while, everyone except the kidnapper realizes that the missing boy is not Gondo’s, but his chauffeur’s. Kurosawa establishes all these elements with clockwork precision. It’s obvious that the director had mapped out a carefully planned strategy as to how and when each development has to take place. I have actually checked the slider on my media player and was fascinated by what I saw.

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Kurosawa uses the opening 15 minutes to show us a corporate drama in progress. Gondo has called up meeting with his three board of directors at his high-rise. The three would prefer seeing the company move in a different direction. They hope to see a boost in profits and to this end, propose the manufacture of a new shoe that is not quite as durable as the ones Gondo has been designing till now. But he declines. Enraged, they threaten to stick together, pool their shares together, and give him the boot. Gondo accepts the challenge and they leave. It seems he has something up his sleeve. He tells his wife and aide about his plans to acquire a controlling interest in the company. Just when he is about to send the deposit to make this happen, the call from the kidnapper arrives just after the 15-min mark. The police arrive at Gondo’s apartment at precisely the 20-min mark. These are perfectly timed and calibrated sequences.

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The police team is led by Chief Inspector Tokura, played superbly by Tatsuya Nakadai, a great actor who would go on to replace Mifune in Kurosawa’s later films such as Ran and Kagemusha. (There is also a small appearance here by another Kurosawa regular, Takashi Shimura, who plays the Chief of Police). It is after their arrival that things really start to gain momentum. Kurosawa brings a documentary-level realism and a palpable sense of immediacy and danger to the proceedings. Kurosawa’s placements of  Mifune, Nakadai and the supporting actors in these scenes are done in such a way that they are all caught inside his neatly composed widescreen frames. This way, everyone’s reaction can be observed at the same time. Before long, the kidnapper realizes that he has the wrong boy but still demands the ransom. He seems to be intelligent and actually uses this situation to his advantage. He tells Gondo, “It’s only extortion if you threaten one’s own kin”. If he gets arrested, he’ll get away with a lighter sentence. Gondo now finds himself in a most awkward predicament.

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Only a while ago, he had revealed his plan to edge out his competitors. This unexpected development seems to stand in the way of all that. Why should he throw away all that hard-earned money to save someone else’s son? He refuses to let the kidnapper make a mockery out of him and put his future in jeopardy. Moreover, his chauffeur is forced to continually beg him to save his son. All this puts a tremendous amount of pressure on him. We ask ourselves, “What would we do if were in the same position as Gondo?” He also begins to suspect his aide of selling him out to the rest of the executives when he begs Gondo to reconsider and change his mind about proceeding with the deal to buy the stock. We learn something about Gondo in the process. Being someone who began at the very bottom, Gondo may possess the ability to start over but he simply can’t stand the thought of putting his wife and son through the same ordeal.

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If  he doesn’t pay the ransom and indeed succeeds in taking over the company, he’ll be shunned by the public for sacrificing the life of a child and then stop buying his shoes. If he pays the ransom, he’ll be ruined financially but will be praised by the public and this perhaps could boost his prospects. Look how complicated things have become. This is an incredibly difficult situation not just for Gondo but also for Tokura and his men. Tokura informs Gondo that if this is considered as “kidnapping for gain”, the perpetrator can be sentenced up to 15 years. But Tokura and his men wishes to see him hang. When the phone rings again, Tokura comes up with a smart plan to identify the culprit. Without spoiling anything, I’ll simply say that this leads to an excitingly staged sequence (using handheld cameras) inside a train. The subsequent investigation and manhunt, needless to say, serves as a showcase for Kurosawa’s exemplary filmmaking skills and stunning attention to details.

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A pivotal moment in the film. This is the only scene where color is used. Steven Spielberg would employ the same technique 30 years later in Schindler’s List.

The beauty and fun of the film lie in its construction and dissection of plenty of details. At times, I almost felt as if I was reading a Frederick Forsyth novel. We see the police discussing the case with the media but unlike many films where the media is portrayed in a negative light, here they do a good job of assisting the police and even enhance Gondo’s reputation by trying to shift the public opinion in his favor. The influence of American film noir and the French thrillers that came out during that time, especially those of Jean-Pierre Melville, can be felt. The face of the kidnapper, a drug-pushing medical student, is revealed to us early on. There are few night sequences where the kidnapper is photographed almost like a character from a graphic novel. Both the Japanese title (“Heaven and Hell”) and the English title (“High and Low”) of the film are very apt as Kurosawa have suitably placed Gondo’s residence atop a hill whereas that of the kidnapper in the filthy slums down below.

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The most likable character here is, of course, Gondo. At first, he seems like a character who is incapable of redemption but it is he who shows a surprising willingness to do the right thing. Not only the kidnapper but also the scheming executives are looking for an easy way to make a buck and come up with pathetic excuses to justify their deplorable deeds. Both Gondo and the kidnapper began at the very bottom but the former managed to crawl out from the depths of the dark and murky pit he was relegated to with his audacity and strength of will. One man goes through hell and returns while the other remains perpetually stuck in it. More than the monetary gain, the kidnapper seems to be acting out of pure jealousy. Mifune’s body language beautifully conveys his character’s frustration and agitation and it’s impossible to imagine anyone else in this part. Based on Ed McBain’s American novel called King’s Ransom, the film manages to be a splendid police procedural, character study and corporate drama all at once. Films like this don’t come along very often.

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