Ranking: #29/111

Director: Akira Kurosawa (Japan)

Genre: Crime and Detective Drama

High and Low is one of the greatest crime dramas in cinema. It is also a masterpiece of the Film Noir genre. The director uses a muted grey tone, however, rather than sharply contrasting light and shadow, black and white. This was perhaps a conscious decision to mirror his nuanced approach to the study of crime in the film, where he shows, for example, that certain socio-economic conditions, especially extreme inequality, can be conducive to crime.

The plot is very intriguing, as befits a story with a strong emphasis on the detective work required to solve a crime. The story is predicated on the gap between rich and poor in rapidly modernising and Westernising Japan of the 1960s (the “high and low” of the title), between the masses living downtown in relative discomfort and the elites of society living on the hillsides overlooking the city. So, from the beginning, Kurosawa weaves his social critique into the narrative.

A top executive named Kingo Gondo, played with uncharacteristic understatement by a suave-looking Toshiro Mifune, is involved in a boardroom struggle at his company, National Shoes. One faction of company directors want to maximise profits in the short-term by making cheaper shoes, whereas he believes passionately in making well-made, high quality shoes.

As usual, Mifune’s ability to immerse himself in his role is unmatched.

Later, it becomes clear that Kurosawa is very cleverly linking the greed of the rich, represented by the executives who put private gain before quality, profits before people, with the moral corruption of the kidnapper who is consumed by his hatred of the rich. There is a crazy level of competitiveness in the society, whereby “with men, it’s either win or lose” and “a man must kill or be killed”.

While he’s involved in this boardroom power struggle, Gondo receives a call informing him that his son, Jun, has been kidnapped. In actuality, it is Jun’s friend, Shinichi, the child of Gondo’s chauffeur, who has been abducted by mistake. The executive is plunged into a moral dilemma which tests his humanity. This is on top of the financial pressure he’s facing as he tries to save his company from being taken over by the profiteers, by buying a majority stake after mortgaging his house as collateral. After some toing-and-froing he decides to pay the 30 million yen ransom to save Shinichi, even though this may jeopardise his already stretched financial position.

Complying with the kidnapper’s instructions, the ransom money is put into two small briefcases and thrown from a moving train. In exchange, the boy is found unharmed.

Gondo is forced out of the company. His creditors demand the collateral he owes. This story then gets into the newspapers, turning Gondo into a moral hero with the public. Here is a man, born into poverty, who made a fortune as an honest businessman, and then who put the lives and welfare of others above his own financial welfare. At the same time, National Shoes is vilified and then boycotted.

By then, the police have tracked down the house where Shinichi was kept after he was kidnapped. The kidnapper’s two accomplices lie dead from an overdose of heroin. The police try to identify who the kidnapper is, suspecting a medical intern at a nearby hospital.

A trap is laid for the suspect, now wanted for the double murder, through a false story in the press suggesting the two accomplices are still alive, and are demanding more drugs. The aim is to tempt the kidnapper to come out of hiding to finish off the accomplices. This plan works and the kidnapper is arrested as he tries to supply more uncut heroin.  

Most of the ransom money gets recovered, but Gondo’s mansion on the hill has already been auctioned to pay off his creditors. He later joins a rival shoe company (“shoes are my life”), freed from the intense stress of the boardroom politics he experienced at National Shoes. His integrity intact, he has found a new niche.

The kidnapper, now facing the death sentence after being convicted of murder and other charges, requests to see Gondo. The condemned prisoner tells the shoe company executive that it was the envy he felt while seeing Gondo’s house on the hill every day (the “high” in the film’s title) which led to him planning his crime in the first place. He was driven by his hatred of Gondo. Suddenly the criminal is overcome by emotion, and breaks down as he finally faces up to his responsibility for his crimes. This scene at the prison is shot with amazing subtlety. Each face is reflected in the glass partition between them when the other person is speaking, metaphorically evoking the idea that they live in two separate worlds, one “high” and the other “low”. There is no connection between the two men from opposites sides of the city.

The film meticulously constructs a social portrait of inequality, which has been created in Japanese society by greed, a corrupting force. It opens with a panoramic shot of the city from the perspective of the privileged position of Gondo’s house on the hilltop. When he opens the window, the sounds of the city suddenly come into hear shot, revealing that the air-conditioned home is normally insulated from the city’s noises. Later, we get contrasting views from the low-lying downtown, or “lower city”, where the kidnapper lives in a tiny room in slum-like conditions. In summer, it’s an inferno down there. In winter, its’ freezing.

The film is structured symmetrically, with the first half looking into Gondo’s world as a rich man, and the second half shown from the perspective of the kidnapper, gaining insight into his twisted mind as he explains his life was hell from the time he was born. High and low! Down low, too, are the drug-pushers and drug-addicts, the whole underworld of Tokyo we get to see. All along, Kurosawa’s attention to detail is exquisite.

The script is punchy, as befits a crime drama with Film Noir overtones. It’s like an existential crime drama where psychology is more important than action as such. The action builds slowly and methodically, with long takes, and growing suspense, to its climax. An atmosphere of anxiety often prevails.

This superb, stylish, sophisticated crime thriller sets the benchmark for this genre. With its multi-layered plot and study of themes, High and Low is the thinking person’s detective story par excellence.