Sometimes bemoaned for brandishing that most Japanese of genres – the samurai flick – and retreating into flavors of Americanization, director Akira Kurosawa performs something of an inside-out operation with High and Low. A fiendish film noir with fangs drawn at a vein spurting society’s maladies, High and Low casts the suspense picture out of its Americana corral by inducing a specifically Japanese flavor. Right from the get-go, Kurosawa’s film is hot on the trail of a molten morality play, teasing suggestions of violence that greasily spread like venom through the bones of Japanese society. Rather than mining his nation’s mythopoetic samurai memory and massaging it into an international sizzler primed for American audiences, this hyper-modern company-man thriller cuts a filmic diamond out of the suffocating coal of Japanese classism, squalor, and privilege. With its humid pangs of ethical disarray and pungent propositions of emotional upheaval, High and Low channels an ever-mutable discourse between social codes and personal feelings, exploring an uncharted territory where each is informed by and negotiates the other.
Although his film traffics in outrage and sweltering paranoia, Kurosawa resists the easy temptation to ensconce his drama in histrionics or moral certitude. Shades of grey are standard praxis in many prestige-baiting middlebrow films, but High and Low’s cacophonous moral fluxion shatters the certainty of the black-white spectrum that would even afford for liminal shades of grey in the first place. Kurosawa won’t even sanction a linear continuum of morality at all. Ever the modernist, dissociating and fracturing and inducing disjunction, High and Low plays a game of existential hide and seek: the crisis mutates by the minute, always skittering around the unstable compositions of Kurosawa’s screen. His film navigates physical space and mushrooms into a quandary of ever-unaccountable proportions.
The general thrust is that well-to-do Japanese shoe manufacturer Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) is on the verge of secretly buying out the other stockholders in his company, men who have been slashing quality over the years and infuriating Gondo’s genuine respect for craftsmanship. Just as he has acquired the money to purchase the final stocks, his son is kidnapped by an onlooker requesting a ransom. Or so they think, until it is revealed that Gondo’s chauffeur’s son was kidnapped by mistake, unleashing one more moral knot for a man who now has to decide whether to give up his future for the chance to save the child and, in a sense, recover his soul. Not without grave consequence though: Gondo has taken out a loan on his plans, mortgaging everything he owns to buyout the company, meaning that using the money for the kidnapper will ruin Gondo’s entire life and, potentially, drive him into abject poverty.
The famous opening act of High and Low exists in constant demolition, swarming with reservations, quandaries, and subtly shifting allegiances externalized in glances, postures, and Kurosawa’s famously diabolical character blocking. Kurosawa leverages the wide-screen frame to cast his characters adrift to contend with the rapidly limiting and insular space of Gondo’s carefully curated abode filling with investigators and moral un-certaintude. Gondo’s lair houses some of Kurosawa’s most cutting character dynamics. The protagonist’s moral clarity and personal perfection shattered, the once-immaculate, uncut home is bifurcated by the second by constantly renegotiating character positions that direct the eyes toward the unstable emotional alignments of the moment. Compositing visual diagonals that fragment the compasses of morality and space, Kurosawa dances around an abyss of fuzzied, frustrated, entirely fruitful internal dissonances and tensions. And although the conflict is distinctly personal for Gondo, the social realm is never out of sight. In bending the wide-screen frame to the point of mutation, this sequence consistently emphasizes the spaciousness of Gondo’s house, the gulf between characters that nonetheless affords for a modicum of maneuverable room in life that the kidnapper (who is never framed in anything but the most claustrophobic angles), we learn, wholly lacks.
After the first act, though, Kurosawa throws us into the murky lower depths of hell. A noxious, lurid pink cloud infects the screen, emanating from a seemingly inhuman source, mushrooming upward, and eventually saturating the black-and-white mise-en-scene. Nominally, the pink is a signal that the investigators may have a lead on the kidnapping. But it is also a conduit for Kurosawa to jettison what little clarity remains. The director subsumes us in the human chaos afoot below Gondo’s monolithic apartment, itself looming over public society like a vulture unknowingly picking the little remaining meat off the bones of the poor. A defiantly unordered arena of human contact and visual density in the back half, the film ushers us into public space into the metropolis Gondo manicures away from his own mental frame. If the immaculate square dioramas of his house were earlier atrophied by the motile characters and the even more unstable moralities, the raucous imagery of the urban center in film’s second act is truly a new realm of characters clambering for any stable ground.
This back-half view of the Japanese underbelly almost plays like a curdled satire of the New Wave mod-appropriation thick-on-the-ground among Japanese youths around this time (particularly replete in Japanese genre films). The spartan aesthetics of the introductory hour in Gondo’s apartment clash with the jagged electricity of the miasma of lost souls choked for space in the under-abundant space of the Japanese cityscape. Gondo’s protective shell of an upscale house eyes them all like ants from above. If the opening is a pressure-cooker past the point of explosion, the film’s back half is an ashen cauldron alternating between exhaustion and enervation, stewing with society’s worst ingredients.
“Worst ingredients”, or so the film initially suggests. But the motile energies of human chaos that house the kidnapper among other ne’er-do-wells also refract a more complicated moral gamble that reveals social unrest, restless youth, and anger at the discrepencies in Japanese culture. Kurosawa reserves any and all social blame or respectability politics. He visualizes a blackened and smoldering populace as a smoke-covered bog, but the film always has one eye on the higher-ups that engender this atrophying public. Although this vision of working-class Japan is seedier in its visual turmoil, it is no more hostile than the silent hell of elite corporate Japan Kurosawa and Gondo contends with earlier on. Even the hyper-individualist attitude Gondo dons to carve out his own path as master of his own domain, his corporate kingdom, may be even worse. After all, unlike the kidnapper, Gondo commits to the cut-throat logic of capitalistic me-against-the-world takeovers by choice rather than because his material well-being depends on it. The latitudinal elegance of Kurosawa’s frame only cloaks a cabal of social imbalances that men like Gondo, who do not think about wider society, cannot even begin to wrap their money around.
The Hell of the Japanese Underworld, it turns out, traffics in the same soot as Gondo’s Heaven. The progression of High and Low clarifies little about which supposed realm is actually which or whether Gondo’s path toward personal success is really just a sanitized version of the testy and selfish morality the kidnapper practices. Succeeding in the high-rises and on the carefully protected hills of Japanese modernity, it seems, entails a kind of trench-warfare that is only different from the gutters of poverty in that it is lacquered in the pristine, semiotic sheen of signifiers of cultural capital. Between Gondo’s elevated paragon of success and individual agency, on one hand, and the actualities of communal disintegration on the other, lies a wide-screen chasm in most people’s minds, two groups of people sequestered away from one another in hermetically sealed worlds. Yet the two are in perpetual collision here, Kurosawa performing a juggling act between various social sectors, as well as between personal ethical tantrums and social conundrums. In the modernist tradition, new valences arise by the minute.
With his widescreen framing so impeccable and pointed, spatial perspective is Kurosawa’s canvas and his paint. But it is also his thesis about the flatness of our understandings of each other. The film deploys the telephoto lens like a weapon of interrogation, flattening our sight to evoke the two-dimensional perspectives that members of Japanese society – both Gondo and his kidnapper – have of one another. This is a world of disillusioned perspectives where the impoverished are pitted against the bourgeois while the new aristocracy (Gondo’s bosses) reserve the luxury of sauntering on screen when it suits their interests. Once the crisply delineated visual and moral axes of the earlier goings muddy in the mire of multivalent mental frames, the scars of society’s strictures dictate that Gondo’s stubborn modern-samurai pride must cast him adrift in a world where nobody truly wins except those who don’t actually have to play.
By the hauntingly spare, bleak final minutes, a “dilemma” is too frighteningly intellectual a term to approximate the jaggedly, chokingly intimate caliber of the moral vise Kurosawa has registered. For the final conversation between Gondo and the kidnapper, separated by a transparent wall, Kurosawa visualizes Gondo with the kidnapper’s face superimposed over his (each man’s face reflected over the other in the mirror). The superimposition reinforces the similarities in their plan-and-act world views as men of diligence and commitment to carry out their desires regardless of the social calamity or fallout. Gondo’s back-door deal-making in corporate secrecy, his double-dealing attitude not dissimilar from his slimy higher-ups, catalyzed his downfall, and now he has to confront the price of “freedom”: a peculiar open-air prison. This final conversation exploits the tragicomic mentality that behind each person we speak to lies a semi-dormant cloud of personal pain and conflict.
The classical “code of honor” of Kurosawa’s historical films would be a liberty that men like Gondo dream of as they slash an errant, capitalistic path to personal success. Next to the adroitly consequential gamesmanship of painstaking verbal apprehension and caprice, the cut-and-dry slice and clean blood spray of a sword is a welcome refuge. The passage of centuries, for Kurosawa, only threatens perspective all the more, subjecting the world to compositional reconstruction and tremors of reconsideration. Gondo’s lone-wolf modern-warrior ways that fashion him a samurai in suit-and-tie focus him toward no clear path, and the conclusion of the film ultimately confirms an air of cyclical inevitability. The ‘60s were overabundant with films in wide-screen and movies that edged nearer to 150 minutes, two factors High and Low shares. But while those mammoth Hollywood films chocked on their own gargantuan lack of ambition and emphasis on size above all, High and Low is anything but elephantine. In its unassuming visual perfection, minute analysis of social discord, and consistently destabilizing moral conundrums that never dichotomize and always conjure dialectics, High and Low is termite art, through and through.