This post was inspired by (and warmly stolen from) Alex Withrow at the wonderful ‘And So It Begins’. Check out his takes here.
When I first saw it, High & Low is one of the few films in my life that has genuinely knocked the life out of me. Back at the tail-end of High School I’d done some work experience at the BFI Southbank and, in all honesty, used and abused their staff discounts to pick up as many must-sees as possible.
In spite of my blossoming love for Kurosawa at the time, High & Low must have sat on my shelf unopened for almost two years before it finally clicked one hazy afternoon. Back then nobody I knew had seen it and the director’s fans oft dismissed it in favour of his more famous works. As of today, I think this sleeping giant is his masterpiece...
Kurosawa’s confidence is a marvel here. After ten years of defining his entire nation’s cinematic relationship with the rest of the world (ten years do much the same today, no less) he goes from massive samurai battles, bottle-narrative bravado on the nature of truth and Shakespearian tragedies to an opening scene of four executives discussing their shoe business. The genius here, after all the fans of his swordplay shake off their shock, is the fact they’re guaranteed to lean in a little closer than usual…
In this brief moment of reflection, where Gondo takes himself away to feel the breeze, Kurosawa doesn’t show us any faces- but the composition speaks volumes.
How patiently we hang on each shot the crew bring to bear: Every frame is carefully chosen and since we’re already wondering why the hell we should be so fascinated by shoe sales- the emotional intricacies of a shot like this bleed to the fore. The distance between husband and wife, Gondo’s closest friend mimicking his faceless ambivalence with a shroud of cigarette smoke to lend himself a little mock importance…
…There’s a profound depth of emotional integrity to High & Low in particular within Kurosawa’s filmography, as if the director had spent his first post-war decade devoted to humanism and in turn come face to face with the twisted dark side of the commercial boom waking in its wake. It’s a silent battle of attrition for good where the winners and losers have already been buried- and a moment like this where all sound but a chiming clock fades and a freeze falls over this tiny olive branch of warmth between the couple can feel so much more special as the dark closes in around it.
Gondo not being able to meet his wife’s eyes as he revels in his gamble. For all he knows, this might be the only moment he ever gets to enjoy it- but the shame is palpable.
Gondo’s steely cool evaporating in the face of the Police inspector. He goes from the man with the plan to a stammering wreck the second he loses control. And notice how after this exchange he quietens down, internalising for almost the entire rest of the film.
This shot. High & Low’s first hour or so is totally free of the flashy landscapes and innovative moves that make Kurosawa’s films so beautiful- instead it’s a perfect test of his craft. Everything is constructed to burn what the characters are thinking and feeling right through the screen.
It really makes me wonder how a sequence like this might be shot in a modern style. Would we be cutting relentlessly between every face in this room? -How does an atmosphere settle if everyone’s sitting in separate boxes?
How the affluent high-ceiling house Gondo has worked his whole life from the ground up to earn hangs almost agape, towering over him here.
We’ll come back to this a lot later on, but part of the genius of Kurosawa’s screenplay is the way he constructs the crime almost independent on the life its destroying. A huge amount of crime fiction frames death as the final insult and fails to consider the perhaps even more gruelling consequences of surviving the destruction of something so precious. In the end, its far harder to just live with it. Often crime cinema is too energized by the thrill of the chase, or the glory of being on the side of the rule-breakers, to ever let crushing reality sink in.
The characters spend a long time debating the crux of High & Low’s lethal conflict- and every time they speak we learn about them. Whether it’s a logical left-hook or philosophical moralising they’re all battling inside the labyrinth of the right decision with nothing to do but bleed. But beyond all the words its like a rocket to the gut when we watch Gondo’s closest ally storm out- their blocking a perfect mirror- and reveal Aoki ever-silent at the door, about to beg forgiveness for his request to have his son saved.
Funny, it’s almost like Mifune is trying to scrub this tangled modern hell away and return to his role as Kikuchio- trading the strong spirit of his cheap life against simple bandits in the pounding rain.
Composition. Composition. Composition!
The pleasant diegetic music that accompanies our first look at the kidnapper- and the way it fades out as he progresses towards him home in the slum.
Now Kurosawa didn’t exactly cast Mr. Universe to play the low-down kidnapper- but I love the way he gives us a few wordless minutes alone with him here. It’s enough time for the hatred to burn out into discomfort and start to wonder, just as vividly as with Gondo- what the hell is he thinking now?
Tatsuya Nakadai’s fearlessly apathetic performance. He plays the captain less like a policeman and more a surgeon: Relentlessly devoted to his work but utterly discompassionate. The only time his face wriggles out of its mask is in recognition of the kidnapper’s fiendish attention to detail. I find it fascinating that Kurosawa frames the police as competent but cold- a half-step too far away from the humanity they protect.
This gorgeous L-cut on dialogue from the boy’s drawing of Mt Fuji to the place itself. Unnecessary, perhaps, but it gifts the investigation that vital bit more life.
The way Kurosawa sidelines Gondo in the film’s second half, almost to give him space, perhaps because the character is too mortified to show his face. There’s something about these shots of him mowing his soon-to-be repossessed lawn, slaked in sweat and slightly out of focus, that move me deeply every time I see them.
Kurosawa again taking the time to let us sit in the shoes of the kidnapper in that sardine-can of a room. His frantic, desperate movements are a hell of a lot more human than the police.
Again with Kurosawa’s excellent staging, always trying to include as many faces as possible. Nakadai’s reactions add so much to this exchange.
The film’s score is so carefully, beautifully deployed. Most of the time we’ve only got the rattle of dialogue to keep our ears company- and Kurosawa picks his battles to punch in with music and really hammer something home. In comparison to modern cinema suffocating every second of screentime with tasteless, traceless scores a scene like this is nothing short of transcendental.
The unique tension bristling throughout the tailing sequence. Again: Kurosawa’s not in it for our enjoyment- he’s built up the stakes to breaking and now every movement counts. If they lose this man now, it feels like it’ll all have been for nothing.
The upside-down dancehall in the huge mirrors here. High & Low is a chamber drama in the first hour, a police procedural in the second and a seedy dive into the heart of darkness for the last gasp- but there’s not an ounce of judgement in a single frame.
And here it is: The scene all those years ago that kicked my guts out in a few simple setups. After a career in larger-than life samurai epics and multi-hour sagas through modern malaise, Akira Kurosawa sits two men in a room- their faces reflected inches away from eachother through grilled visitors’ glass- and poses a question neither can answer. There is no justice, only darkness- and our desperate attempts to repay its devastation. The final stinging blow of High & Low, unlike so many films of its kind, is that we have to live with it.