High And Low (Tengoku to jigoku)

Japan (1963) Dir. Akira Kurosawa

With this reputation for samurai flicks and historical epics it is easy to forget that Akira Kurosawa also made some top notch modern day set dramas too. High And Low is a taut crime thriller, a rare genre in Kurosawa’s canon, based on the novel King’s Ransom by Ed McBain.

Wealthy executive at the National Shoes company Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) is approached by fellow directors to join them in pulling a power play against their boss, but Gondo refuses, secretly planning his own bid for control. Shortly after his colleagues leave, Gondo receives a phone call from a man (Tsutomu Yamazaki) claiming he has kidnapped Gondo’s son Jun (Toshio Egi) and demands a 30 million yen ransom.

Just as Gondo was about approve the payment, he learns it was Jun’s friend Shinichi (Masahiko Shimazu) the son of Gondo’s chauffeur Aoki (Yutaka Sada) who was abducted by mistake. Gondo changes his mind about paying the ransom despite the kidnapper saying the deal still stands, ignoring the pleas from Aoki, and Gondo’s wife Reiko (Kyôko Kagawa).

You may be wondering if sustaining this storyline for almost two and half hours is a stretch even for Kurosawa, who is known for long films. The fact is he doesn’t have to as the above plot extends to the first thirty plus minutes only. The remainder is consumed with the police procedure of hunting down and catching the kidnapper, allowing us a look at how investigations were conducted without the benefit of computers, mobile phones and other technological advances.

This might sound like a slog but Kurosawa’s renown as a great storyteller is confirmed in the way he keeps the audience engrossed in every tense and prickly moment detailing the kidnapper’s eventual downfall. It’s an often dark and grisly tale, not through violence or any graphic content but in the exploration into the deviousness and disregard for our fellow humans buried within some of us.

Gondo is a conflicting character at first – it is obvious by the reverence shown to him by his colleagues that he is a canny and astute businessman, something his wealth attests to. But his decision to go it alone in gaining control of the company reveals his selfish and ambitious side, having mortgaged his home to fund his business plan.

When he got the call about Jun’s kidnapping, Gondo had assigned his right hand man Kawanishi (Tatsuya Mihashi) to take a flight to deliver a 50 million yen deposit on some shares. Believing his son was in trouble Gondo cancelled the order but as soon as he learned it is was Shinich in trouble, he changed his mind again, despite Aoki’s pleas.

The police are now called in, headed by Chief Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) but Gondo is still refusing to pay up as thirty million yen will wipe him out and lose his place in the company. Eventually, he concedes but resents the fact he is sacrificing his own wealth, security and life of luxury but when the story is made public, Gondo is considered a hero, a sentiment energised with National Shoes sack him.

It seems in business there are no friends and Gondo finds this out the hard way, his colleagues openly gloating about his downfall when the police explore any possible grudges held against Gondo. This serves as a mordant observation that not all heartless criminals are street level thugs and drug addled ne-er-do-wells, they wear smart suits and operate out of lush penthouses too.

Presumably for the sake of expedience the police seem to quickly happen upon plenty of eye witness evidence, forensic results and remarkably, filmed footage shot from the train where the drop off was conducted. It’s enough however for the police to go on, along with Aoki taking Shinichi back to the abduction spot to help jog his memory for further clues.

This is where the film takes a rather dark turn when two of the accomplices are found dead from apparent heroin overdoses. As it transpires, these weren’t accidental deaths as the heroin was pure, something the users weren’t aware of, adding the charge of murder to kidnapping and blackmail. Later on, Kurosawa unflinchingly shows us an overdosed corpse, which must have shocked western audiences at the time.

I’ve probably given away too much of the story by now but that still doesn’t cover everything. There are arguments to be made that the run time is excessive, but on reflection the trimming needn’t be too drastic, possibly five or ten minutes at the very most. Many scenes in the third act are deliberate in their actions but necessarily so, forcing us to become fully immersed in the moment.

Like Kurosawa’s Stray Dog (1949) the investigation takes place during a hot summer, and again, the audience feels every sticky, sweaty moment of the busy police crammed into their tiny workspaces as they decipher the various evidences before them. Similarly we are taken deep into the bustling heart of 60’s Japanese nightlife and later the seedy and grimy underworld of hardcore drug dens.

Due to the length, the pace wavers a little in places but the once the intensity picks up we are firmly in the grip of the procedural drama and complexities the crime brings with it. Kurosawa creates an atmosphere that sits somewhere between cynical social commentary and gritty crime thriller that lives and breathes through the astute performances. It is odd to see Toshiro Mifune play someone like Gondo, full of swagger only to later become pitiful, but this is a testament to his talent as an actor.

The translocation of the story from the US to Japan feels natural, although some might snigger at women’s shoes being an unlikely catalyst for this entire unpleasant saga, but in Kurosawa’s hands it still feels credible. If there was ever a doubt that a crime thriller could succeed without sex, violence and high tech chicanery and still thrive on tension, High And Low is Exhibit A.