High and Low (1963)

aka Tengoku to jigoku

Akira Kurosawa | 144 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | Japan / Japanese | 12

High and Low

Akira Kurosawa has a good many classic films to his name, but, according to users of both IMDb and Letterboxd, this is the second best of them all — and, on the latter’s list. the 12th greatest film ever made, to boot. No pressure.

Adapted from the American crime novel King’s Ransom by Ed McBain, the film stars Toshiro Mifune as a business executive who we first meet being wooed to join a potential coup of the company. (The film rattles through a few twists early on to set up its initial dilemma, which I’m now going to spoil, so if you want to go in completely cold, jump to the next paragraph.) In fact, Mifune is plotting his own takeover, paid for by leveraging everything he has. But then, his young son is abducted, with the kidnappers demanding a huge ransom — if he pays, his carefully-laid plans will be impossible to execute; but it’s his son! But then, it turns out it isn’t his son — the crooks took the wrong boy, instead kidnapping the son of Mifune’s lowly chauffeur. But they don’t know that, and there’s no way in hell the poor chauffeur could pay a ransom. What’s a man to do?

Some might power a whole film on that storyline and dilemma, but it’s only the beginning of High and Low. Its original Japanese title (天国と地獄) literally translates as Heaven and Hell, and, as both monikers indicate, this is a film of two halves; of opposing forces; of extreme choices. Without wishing to spoil any more of what goes down, I’ll say that almost the first hour of the film takes place almost entirely in a single room. It feels like the whole thing might unfurl there, a la Hitchcock’s Rope — almost a formal exercise in telling a story from a single setting. But then it moves to an immediately more dynamic locale — a train — for a properly thrilling sequence, around which the story and structure pivots. The rest of the film goes ultra-procedural. A lengthy scene early in this half depicts a police debriefing in a manner that feels almost documentarian, as if we’re witnessing a genuine meeting filmed and presented in real-time, as various detective duos update senior officers and their colleagues on the specific aspect of the case they’ve been working.

Hanging on the telephone

This eye for detail, presented with a degree of mundanity, makes the film feel extra realistic. That extends to the final details. No spoilers, but, although you may call this a Thriller due to the type of story being told, it doesn’t climax with a big twist or revelation; no reveal of some super-clever grand plan that, with implausible foresight, anticipated and accounted for everything that’s happened. Rather, the film seems to proceed methodically and logically through every thread of investigation and consequence for its primary characters, until it simply has no more left to tell.

It’s certainly a fine piece of work — although, on first watch, I’d say I’ve seen several better examples of the genre and several better films by Kurosawa. But that isn’t truly a criticism of the film, rather of its high placing on the lists mentioned at the start. Awareness of such accolades has a tendency to overshadow any first viewing of a film that warrants them (just witness how many people are underwhelmed by Citizen Kane), so I look forward to returning to High and Low sometime under less pressure.

5 out of 5

High and Low is the 30th film in my 100 Films in a Year Challenge 2022. It was viewed as part of Blindspot 2022.

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