HIGH AND LOW

(Japanese title: Tengoku to jigoku ["Heaven and Hell"]))
(1963 - Japan)
With Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyoko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Black and White
Reviewed by JB

What? Who wrote Swanee River? Umm... Takashi Shimura?     If you study the course of Kurosawa's career, you can notice "companion" films.  The most obvious pair is YOJIMBO and its quasi-sequel SANJURO, but there is also THRONE OF BLOOD and RAN (both bleak stories based on Shakespeare) and THE BAD SLEEP WELL and HIGH AND LOW, two "modern-day" films that share many of the same cast members as well as a story  concerned with the inequities of the Japanese economy.

   Like most of Kurosawa's greatest films, HIGH AND LOW is a movie that, soon after you've seen it for the first time, you may want to watch it again to enjoy it on a complete different level.  On the surface level, HIGH AND LOW is an engrossing story of Kingo Gondo, a high-powered corporate executive on the verge of taking over his company, suddenly having to deal with the kidnapping of his young son.  Ready to pay the huge ransom and thus ruin his career (he needs the money for the takeover, since the other executives are ready to kick him out), but when it is discovered the kidnapper grabbed the wrong boy, Gondo has a change of heart.  Will he follow through with his takeover and risk the death of his chauffeur's son? Toshiro Mifune once again handles the role of a modern executive well, and is matched by Tatsuya Nakadai's gentle and charming portrayal of an amiable police detective.

     On the socio-political level, HIGH AND LOW is another film in a series of Kurosawa's gendai-geki (modern-day) dramas examine the problems of a post-war Japan struggling with the gap between the rich and the poor in a growing economy.  Known as HEAVEN AND HELL in Japan, the film takes us from the "Heaven" of Gondo's luxury apartment high on a hill to the "Hell" of the alleys of the city where zombie-like junkies wander around waiting for their next fix. 

      But it is on the technical level that I most enjoy HIGH AND LOW. The first hour of the film takes place in Gondo's apartment, which is soon filled with detectives.  As with THE LOWER DEPTHS, Kurosawa is not intimidated when limited to a single set and a large cast, and the first half of the film is an experiment on how many interesting ways you can arrange seven or eight characters on a widescreen.  One could probably do a college thesis on the constantly varying arrangements and what they mean in terms of the characters and their relationships to each other. The second half of the film, in which the police attempt to track down the kidnapper, is filmed more dynamically and, as with STRAY DOG, shows Kurosawa's fascination with police procedure.  There is even one experimental shot where Kurosawa adds a dash of color for emphasis, something Hitchcock had already played with in SPELLBOUND

     Not typical Kurosawa, but excellent Kurosawa just the same. ½ - JB

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