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High and LowHigh and Low

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

(Japan, 1963, 143 minutes, b&w and color, 35mm)
In Japanese with English subtitles

Toshirô Mifune . . . . . . . . . . Kingo Gondo
Tatsuya Nakadai . . . . . . . . . . Chief Detective Tokura
Kyôko Kagawa . . . . . . . . . .Reiko Gondo

The following film notes were prepared for the New York State Writers Institute by Kevin Jack Hagopian, Senior Lecturer in Media Studies at Pennsylvania State University:

The long-time English translation of Akira Kurosawa's Tengoku to Jigoku is the decorous High and Low . But the original Japanese title, Heaven and Hell, better fits this fierce, headlong crime drama, the last of Kurosawa's great modern-dress films. High and Low is among Kurosawa's most insistent films, its narrative driven ineluctably forward by the rhythms of a train, by the intricacies of an unfolding crime -- and by the glowering power of Toshiro Mifune, the towering muse of many of Kurosawa's greatest films.

High and Low is many things. It is a crime film, a caper film, a star vehicle, and exercise in narrative constraint. But this exceptional film grew from a seemingly unexceptional seed: its source is one of Ed McBain's pulp crime novel, King's Ransom. Kurosawa was one of the first to see in McBain's work what others have since acknowledged: a profound engagement with ethical and moral issues that well up, both among those charged with defending a city against crime, and among those whom chance has placed in the way of criminality. In McBain's novels, the criminals are often shadowy figures, put there to generate these crises of conscience.

Here, the story is of Gondo, a shoe company executive (Mifune) planning a boardroom intrigue to gain control of the company. He has raised the capital for his coup, when word comes that his son has been kidnapped for ransom. All the money he has raised will be sunk into the ransom. Any price to get his son back, thinks Gondo. But what about somebody else's son? How much -- exactly -- is someone else's life worth to you? By 1963, and the end of his middle period as a filmmaker, Kurosawa had become adroit in the use of the camera to paint his stories with a broad, emphatic brush. Few other directors have used camera movement and editing so explicitly as a way to characterize a story. At moments, so extraordinary is this camerawork that High and Low verges on an experimental narrative.

Kurosawa's cinematography here is founded on the use of the Cinemascope aspect ratio (technically, a trademarked Japanese process, Tohoscope, with a 2:35 to 1 screen ratio.) This is letterbox filmmaking at its most rigorous. Kurosawa's ability to compose horizontally, in two and three shots, seen to such effect in The Seven Samurai, is at its most baroque here. And yet, with the decision to shoot in wide screen, Kurosawa has intentionally designed for himself a remarkable formal problem, for one of the film's most omnipresent themes is one of class, in which economic superiority is represented by height. The world of privilege and deference organized around the industrialist's apartment is high up in the Yokohama skyline, while the criminals scuttle about in a decrepit Chinatown.

The high degree of formality in Kurosawa's conception of High and Low is illustrated by the schematic presentation of the film's plot. The film is broken into two discrete halves, the crime and its aftermath. Perhaps not until Stanley Kubrick's 1986 Full Metal Jacket would there again be seen such a radically divided plot structure. The first section of the film is seen entirely through the perspective of people who are not present at the crime, or even on the crime scene during the investigation; Kurosawa stages the entire first half of the film in the industrialist's apartment. The "action" is slow and methodical, yet it feels desperately anxious. Much of the suspense comes from the mercurial Mifune, here a simmering emotional volcano in a still landscape of faces who are less personally than professionally connected to the crime. Kurosawa's camera is patient, even wary; some of the takes are as long as ten minutes, and critic Donald Richie, present on the set during this period, believes Kurosawa would have made them even longer had his cameras' magazines permitted it. Although there are wipes signifying the passage of time, this feels like real waiting, agonized, frustrating, and lonely. Later, after the crime has resolved itself, the second half of the film is likewise careful, even meditative, in its structure, as Gondo and the strangely existential criminal "mastermind" behind the caper are both given space to reflect on the larger meanings of the botched crime.

As part of Kurosawa's experiment in structure, the two halves of the film are linked by a remarkable passage of some four minutes of screen time. This justly-famous set piece, in which the action of the crime climaxes, is among the great achievements in cinematic editing, as the hurtling train contains all the ingredients of the film's several conflicts, painfully compressed in space and time, extruding deadpan suspense as it gathers speed.

High and Low joins Drunken Angel, Ikiru, and The Bad Sleep Well as one of Kurosawa's best modern-dress dramas of conscience, a genre in which some of his greatest engagements with moral and social questions are played out in a style that is simultaneously compassionate and analytical, personal yet objective. His friend and colleague Toshiro Mifune referred to Kurosawa's mastery of these various modes of truthfulness and fictionality as his "tact with life." "When you see his films," wrote Mifune, "you find them full realizations of ideas, of emotions, of a philosophy which surprises with its strength, even shocks with its power. You had not expected to be so moved, to find within your own self this depth of understanding."

— Kevin Hagopian, Penn State University

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