Sunday, October 26, 2008

In Depth Review: High and Low

High and Low (1963, Akira Kurosawa)

Kurosawa's film High and Low is a prime example of the quality cinema can result when two popular genres are properly fused into one story. In this case, we have the drama genre and the detective genre. To put it briefly, Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune, yet again in a starring role in a Kurosawa) is a shoe making plant director for the National Shoe Company. One night he receives a threatening phone call from a man saying that his son has been kidnapped, and unless Gondo pays the 30 million ransom, the boy will die. Soon afterwards, it is discovered that it is not Gondo's son that has been taken, but the son of his chauffeur. Regardless, the kidnapper still asks for the identical ransom. His son now in safety, Gondo begins to doubt whether he should pay the ransom, given that the 30 million in question is just about how much he has saved up and mortgaged to take over the National Shoe Company. And so begins a fascinating tale about morals and detective work.

The other players involved are the chief detective on the case played by Tatsuya Nakadai who comes into play mostly in the second half of the film. I say second half because the story is really split into two separate, but yet closely linked chapters. The first hour or so concerns itself primarily with Gondo and his reluctance to pay the ransom. His hesitancy is gruesome in that it is a young, innocent boy's life that is on the line. But Gondo's philosophy on the subject is heavily skewed for very personal reasons. He has been with the Shoe Company for decades, practically from the beginning. His life is his work and his work is his life one might argue. Additionally, he has just mortgaged most of what he owns in order to become the company employee with the most shares. This in theory would lead to far greater income in the future, not to mention an enhanced decision power. If he he pays the ransom however, all that vanishes, including his home.

What is on display is a bizarre but intriguing dilemma. As a hard worker, a very hard one at that, is Gondo not entitled to finally make his break in the company? Most people would of course argue no. Rather, the boy's life is far more precious. And yet Kurosawa makes it plainly obvious that in this world, men are after success more than anything else. One need only look at Gondo's right hand man, played by Tatsuya Mihashi, who insists that Gondo should follow through with his plan and not 'chicken out' because of circumstances that are beyond his control. There is a specific, ruthless business mentality that drives men like this and the result makes for a strange, but very engaging experience.

Tatsuya Nakadai shines the the second part of the film, when he and his team of crack detectives take over and hunt the kidnapper down. He and his men have witnessed first hand the strife the event has caused between Gondo and his wife (who pleads desperately for her husband to go ahead and pay the ransom to save the boy's life) as well as between Gondo and his right hand man and other colleagues. In addition to the fact that a young boy has been put in incredible peril, their resolve to bring these matters to a safe and positive conclusion is welcomed. Nakadai leads his team with confidence and cunning. One can understand why he is so highly regarded within the force. There is a natural calmness about him, but one that is supported by intelligence and a sharpness that enables him to make quick fire decisions when the stakes are high. Kenjiro Ishiyama plays one of Nakadai's men and is equally strong in his role as detective Bos'n. A bit older, bald and with a intimidating face, he displays determination and passion rather than anything overly menacing, which might have been the case were the story in another director's hands. His commitment to the case is second to none.

There are some inspiring scenes in the film, most notably when Gondo and the detectives, under instructions from the kidnapper, are riding on a speeding train hoping to catch a glimpse of the boy through the windows, but fully aware that the packaged ransom must be thrown out the window and that any false movement can derail the entire case (particularly since the detectives do not want the kidnapper to know that they are involved). The final sequence of the film exemplifies the result all the hard work the detectives have invested up until that point. When so close to catching the suspect, but aware that any false move can be translate to failure, both efficiency and stress are juggled together. A climax that is more than merely satisfying.

High and Low is one of Kurasawa's finer efforts. It may not involve samurais or emperors, but the director is comfortable with the material and handles it delicately, letting many of the scenes breath. The pacing is just right, with nothing feeling rushed. Everything plays out naturally. For those who associate Kurosawa with swords and ancient Japan epics, I urge them to get their hands on a copy of High and Low discover something surprising.

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