Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Japan. 1962.

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Until recently there were six films by Akira Kurosawa which I regarded as touching greatness: Rashomon, Ikiru, Seven Samurai, Throne of Blood, Kagemusha, and Ran. Respectively: the Japanese breakthrough to the West, the humanistic masterpiece, the film that has everything (comedy, tragedy, adventure, romance), the greatest of all Shakespearean adaptations, the tragedy of being somebody’s double, and the visually stunning take on King Lear. I have finally got round to seeing his 1962 thriller High and Low, and would undoubtedly add it to the list.

Based on a novel by American pulp writer Ed McBain (who is still writing in his late 70s), and with a Japanese title which translates as Heaven and Hell, High and Low is, like Ikiru, set in the present day (meaning, in this instance, the early 1960s). It tells of a wealthy shoe manufacturer, Gondo, played by Toshiro Mifune who is so ubiquitous in most of Kurosawa’s best-known films. While on the brink of clinching a deal which would give him control of the company, he suddenly hears that his young son has been kidnapped for a ransom of similar amount to what he is about to spend on his deal. It then transpires that it is his chauffeur’s son who has been kidnapped by mistake, but the ransom demand still stands. This presents Gondo with his moral dilemma: while he would have been prepared to sacrifice his deal to save his own son, should he do the same to save someone else’s? The first half of the film takes place entirely within his luxurious home, as the police are called in and plans are discussed and prepared. This hour or so on a single set may sound highly theatrical, but Kurosawa continually changes the staging of the varying groups of characters in a way which makes the phrase "action-packed" seem totally appropriate. It certainly holds one’s attention.

This is immediately followed by a stunning four-minute sequence aboard a bullet train, where Gondo throws from the window two briefcases packed with the ransom money as demanded by the kidnapper. One of the cases contains a substance which, under the police plan to find the criminal’s location, will give off a cloud of pink smoke when opened.

This bullet train sequence propels us into the very different second half of the film, which concentrates on the details of the police hunt for the kidnapper (whose identity we discover early on). The "high and low" of the title refers not just to the contrast between Gondo’s luxury home on a hill and the area down below where the kidnapper lives, but also to the starkly differing social conditions, because down below is a veritable hell-hole of sleaze and drug addiction. Bit by bit the police identify and close in on the culprit, aided by the pink smoke which, in an otherwise black-and-white movie, is hand-coloured in (trivia question: what links High and Low with Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, Hitchcock’s Spellbound, and Spielberg’s Schindler’s List?). The film’s second half is just as absorbing and brilliant as the first, though in a totally different way. In a brilliant coda, Gondo and the criminal come face to face in the prison, and are filmed in such a way as to show them as virtually interchangeable.

Enthusiasts for the great Japanese films of the 1950s will recognise several of the actors: apart from Mifune, his wife is played by Kyoko Kagawa (Tokyo Story, Sansho Dayu), and the police team includes Takashi Shimura and Daisuke Kato (Seven Samurai, Ikiru). The police chief is Tatsuya Nakadai, later to play memorable leads in Kagemusha and Ran, while the villain is Tsutomu Yamazaki, who became better known in Juzo Itami’s films such as Tampopo. All the main characters are superbly drawn, most of all those played by Mifune and Nakadai.

High and Low is far more than a routine thriller. It is an enactment of Kurosawa’s humanistic philosophy which shows all his characters as having value in themselves, and which demands that we must never judge people in isolation from those circumstances which helped to make them what they are. "There but for the grace of God go I" might well sum up this admirable film.

Alan Pavelin

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