High and Low: Kurosawa’s kidnapping procedural at 60

From a pulp novel by Ed McBain, Akira Kurosawa fashioned a gripping procedural thriller that ranks among his greatest contemporary-set films. Jasper Sharp digs into a tale of extortion, social distinction and pink smoke.

High and Low (1963)

Think Kurosawa and one immediately thinks of sword-swinging samurai engaged in epic battles on horseback, medieval Japanese castles enveloped in fog, or lone-wolf warriors riding into lawless, windswept towns. Even those whose minds turn to the contemporary-set dramas – such as the proto-yakuza movie Drunken Angel (1948), the director’s first with actor Toshiro Mifune, or Ikiru (1952), the poignant tale of a terminally-ill civil servant who too late discovers his purpose in life, or the nuclear paranoia of I Live in Fear (1955) – tend to overlook Kurosawa’s influence in the field of the crime drama. Of these, 1963’s High and Low stands as a towering example.

Stray Dog (1949)

High and Low sits as part of a pair with Stray Dog (1949), Kurosawa’s occupation-era police procedural in which Mifune’s police officer Murakami embarks on a quest through the stifling heat and broken landscapes of postwar Tokyo in the height of summer in search of the anonymous killer who has robbed him of his service revolver in a crowded streetcar at the beginning of the film. Both feature an antagonist who remains offscreen until the final scenes, offering a dark shadowy relief to their main characters’ moral quandaries. 

While Stray Dog is now justifiably seen as a classic of its age, Kurosawa himself spoke disparagingly of it. “I wanted to make a film in the manner of Simenon, but I failed,” he is reported by Donald Richie as saying in The Films of Akira Kurosawa (1965). “Everyone likes the picture but I don’t. It is just too technical. All that technique and not one real thought in it.” 

The meticulous filmic form of High and Low might therefore be seen as a marker of just how far Kurosawa had come in confidence over the intervening 13 years – in which he’d also filmed Dostoevsky (The Idiot, 1951), Shakespeare (Throne of Blood, 1957) and Gorky (The Lower Depths, 1957) – in adapting foreign literary sources to a Japanese context while retaining their universal concerns.

First edition King’s Ransom by Ed McBain, published in 1959

The 1959 crime novel King’s Ransom, written by Evan Hunter under his more famous pen name of Ed McBain, provides the source but not the style and approach of High and Low. Kurosawa’s film, released 60 years ago in Japan on 1 March 1963, was made by a director then much more established among international audiences and critics. Some might argue it was a case of high art forged out of low literature. At the time of its release, Kurosawa’s select audience outside of Japan would be largely restricted to the habitués of the arthouse cinemas that played such subtitled fare in the west. Meanwhile the original novel, the 10th in the long-running mass-market 87th Precinct police procedural paperback series, had already been filmed and broadcast to mass audiences across America as the 21st episode of the 1961 to 1962 TV crime show of the same name, starring Robert Lansing.

Here McBain’s protagonist Douglas King becomes Kingo Gondo, a wealthy industrialist played once more by Toshiro Mifune, who has been putting together funds to gain control of the shoe company for which he has been working for most of his life. A 47% shareholding is just enough to tilt the balance against the 46% of his rivals, until his plans, and indeed his whole lifestyle, are thrown into jeopardy by the kidnapping of a young boy – not his young son, as per the kidnapper’s original plans, but the boy’s playmate and the only son of Gondo’s chauffeur. Upon learning of his mistake, the kidnapper retains his insistence upon the full payment of 30 million yen, else the boy is killed. To pay the ransom would not only spell an end to Gondo’s business ambitions, but result in complete financial ruin. But not to do so…

Kurosawa’s structuring of the drama across the film’s 142-minute runtime is unorthodox but highly effective. The first hour almost exclusively plays out in the single location of Gondo’s luxurious modern villa atop the Yokohama Bluff, high above the rest of the city. The scenes unfold almost in real-time in a succession of widescreen takes accommodating multiple characters, often in motion, with deft edits, snappy dialogue and nothing in the way of cinematic effects or music to accentuate the drama. 

As Richie reveals, two identical sets were constructed for Gondo’s house – one at Toho’s studios; the other overlooking Yokohama – with the action filmed from afar beyond the fourth wall, as if viewing a stage, with many of the shots using long lenses. The frame is kept so busy with the constant movements of and interactions between Gondo’s business associates, the family members of his wife and son, and his domestic employees (notably the chauffeur) as they come and go during the initial business wranglings that the viewer is as shocked as everyone by the kidnapper’s sudden phone-call alerting us to the absence of one of the boys, seen earlier running around playing cowboys and Indians with his pal. 

High and Low (1963)

This extended first sequence continues in the same busy vein but with a renewed sense of urgency following the arrival of Tatsuya Nakadai’s Inspector Tokuro, as Gondo wrestles with his conscience to do the right thing in consultation with the others in this closed-off hilltop locale. The action, setting and tone switches abruptly in the ensuing gripping sequence aboard a high-speed train, as an attempt is made to save the kidnapped boy, and then again for the lengthy mid-section in which Gondo all but disappears from proceedings to be replaced as the main protagonist by Tokuro and his police investigation team as they work to capture the felon.

These shifts in location and narrative voice highlight that High and Low is a film that thematises social relationships and divisions, with all their moral complexities, by way of spatial ones. The kidnapper reveals himself to be delivering his ransom demand from a payphone in Yokohama’s less salubrious downtown areas, from which he has direct vantage via a telescope over every movement in Gondo’s house on the hill, while Tokuro’s investigation leads us down into the lower depths of a slum milieu in which drug addiction and murder also feature. 

As Stephen Prince writes in The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, “although the characters of the film remain oblivious to the social and economic divisions in Japanese society that have set Gondo and the kidnapper in opposition, the structure of the film visualizes these very divisions. The bifurcated narrative formalizes them, and the ‘bridge’ that mediates the two sections is purely ironic. For no reconciliation is possible.”

Viewpoints, distances, dimensions and perceptions play a significant role in the investigation’s attempts to reveal the identity and whereabouts of the kidnapper. Intricate maps are drawn showing which public pay phones would have been in direct sunlight and in the eyeline of the mansion at the time the call was made, while the sound of a trolley car in the background of the recording, as in Dario Argento’s The Bird with the Crystal Plumage (1970), provides a more definitive clue pinpointing its exact location. 

High and Low (1963)

Still photos, a sequence of 8mm film footage and a child’s drawing are among the other vital pieces of information anchoring characters’ positions within specific points in space and time in the chain of events. However, Richie points out, Kurosawa’s emphasis on reflecting surfaces such as water, mirrors and windows hints that the high and low social and moral positioning of both the high-flying shoe magnate and his criminal extortionist might not be quite as cut and dry as first appears. And what too should one make of that conspicuous note of artifice that intrudes upon Kurosawa’s near newsreel realism, in the form of a single shot of pink smoke rising from the chimney of an incinerator in which a vital piece of evidence has been burned? It was the director’s first and only use of colour until his first full-colour feature, Dodes’ka-den, in 1970.

“My room was so cold in winter and so hot in summer, I couldn’t sleep. From that tiny room, your house looked like heaven. As I looked at it, I gradually started to hate you”, Gondo’s nemesis, invisible for much of the film, reveals at one point. 

As Peter Tasker points out in On Kurosawa: A Tribute to the Master Director, Kurosawa’s film serves to “accentuate the differences between the two men, rather than the similarities as drawn out in the novel.” McBain’s source material features a gang of three kidnappers, motivated purely by wealth and the freedom this supposedly brings, while Kurosawa has “a hate-filled loner who doesn’t seem to need or even want the money.”

The English title, High and Low, does away with the more allegorical nuances of the original Japanese, which translates literally as ‘Heaven and Hell’. As Tasker points out, it is implied that Gondo is a member of the outcast burakumin cast, descended from butchers and leather tanners, who has worked his way up to the top (his business in shoes, although shared by Doug King in the original novel, seems particularly pertinent in a Japanese context), while the kidnapper himself is indicated to have come from a more middle-class background. As Stephen Prince elaborates, both he and the thief of Murakami’s pistol in Stray Dog are ‘“underground” men, living precariously on the fringes of society and responding to it with profound contempt and as superhuman rebels, convinced of their own right to transgress. It is not their social status that motivates their actions, but their moral rationalisation of their position within society.

Memories of Murder (2003)

While High and Low was ranked in joint 13th position in a 2009 critics poll of the greatest Japanese films ever made by the country’s foremost film journal Kinema Junpo (alongside Tomu Uchida’s A Fugitive from the Past [1965], another allegorical and morally complex crime drama from the 1960s featuring an obsessive police hunt for a shadowy criminal figure), Stray Dog didn’t even break the top 100. 

And yet the more conventional cat-and-mouse games of Stray Dog have inspired two direct remakes (in the form of a 1973 feature by Azuma Morisaki for Shochiku in 1973 and a 2013 Japanese television movie directed by Yasuo Tsuruhashi) and been reworked to a bleak post-Aum Shinrikyo Tokyo setting in Shinji Aoyama’s An Obsession in 1997 and to Hong Kong for Johnny To’s PTU in 2003. High and Low has had just one – in 2007, again for Japanese TV, with the action nonsensically relocated to the small Hokkaido port city of Otaru.

If High and Low remains among Kurosawa’s lesser known works in the west, it might be because its rigorous construction has proven too singularly complex to emulate. Still, in later police procedurals such as Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (2003) and David Fincher’s Zodiac (2007), there’s no mistaking the influence of Kurosawa’s slow-burn storytelling technique.

A complete Akira Kurosawa retrospective runs at BFI Southbank throughout January and February.

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