Akira Kurosawa’s propensity for adapting European classics—Dostoyevsky (The Idiot), Shakespeare (Throne of Blood), Gorky (The Lower Depths)—earned him a label, both abroad and at home, as the most “Western” of Japanese directors, even though he never saw himself as other than purely Japanese. Indeed, what could be more Japanese for a man of Kurosawa’s epoch and social class than to have been brought up on Shakespeare, Balzac, and Dostoyevsky, on Beethoven and Schubert? He was born in 1910, when the Meiji era’s enthusiasm for foreign culture had not yet been overwhelmed by rising nationalist tides, the son of an ex–army officer and school administrator of distinguished samurai descent. It would be more accurate to say that for the young Kurosawa such European models had already been so thoroughly assimilated as to form part of his native culture; and far from being exotic transplantations, Throne of Blood and The Lower Depths are richly detailed explorations of the periods and milieus of Japanese history in which Kurosawa sets them.
High and Low represents quite a different project: a contemporary rather than a period film, the adaptation not of a European classic but of an American thriller, Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom (1959), in the era before such thrillers enjoyed much cultural prestige. It is the only time Kurosawa ever worked explicitly with material of American origin (although Yojimbo bore a large debt to Dashiell Hammett, then only slightly more prestigious), and he used it not to illuminate a vanished epoch but to produce a map of contemporary Japan that ranges from the complacent and affluent “heaven” to the needy and nihilistic “hell” of the film’s Japanese title, with an efficient police force patrolling the problematic zone where high and low collide. Kurosawa had treated modern themes before, to be sure. But High and Low is more detached in its effect: less heartrending than Ikiru, less savage (though no less contemptuous) in its criticism of corporate life than The Bad Sleep Well, less romantic in its attitude toward criminality than Drunken Angel. The tormented young policeman played by Toshiro Mifune in Stray Dog has grown up, perhaps, to be the coolly restrained detective embodied by Tatsuya Nakadai: seeing everything but keeping his judgments to himself until he really can’t take it anymore.
To underscore the film’s American provenance, Kurosawa gives us early on—in a close-up that intrudes with considerable shock effect into the deep widescreen vistas of the opening interior shots—the unleashed energy of a Japanese boy in a cowboy hat brandishing a toy six-shooter, the pure product of early sixties imported TV culture. Likewise, the central scene at police headquarters, in which the reports of each team are interspersed with visual clips of their investigations, conjures up the American documentary-style police procedurals of the postwar period, such as The Naked City and T-Men. The modern world in which High and Low takes place is unavoidably in some ways an American world—or perhaps the post-American world of a Japan still emerging from years of occupation and accustoming itself to a new era of unbridled economic development, bringing with it new kinds of social unease and dislocation.
The choice of material might seem curious. King’s Ransom, although like most of McBain’s books a good swift read, is not even one of the better novels in his “87th Precinct” series, lacking notably the raucous humor and offbeat characterizations that he usually brings to his police-station scenes. (McBain, born Salvatore Lombino, was also, as Evan Hunter, the author of The Blackboard Jungle and the screenplay for The Birds.) Kurosawa, in fact, kept little of the novel beyond its gripping premise—a businessman’s son is targeted by kidnappers, but they mistakenly abduct his chauffeur’s son instead—and claimed to have been impressed chiefly by the audacity of the kidnappers’ demand that the businessman nonetheless pay the ransom, a sum that will wipe him out. In King’s Ransom, the driven and arrogant shoe company executive Douglas King refuses to pay the ransom and lucks out anyway, saving both fortune and moral reputation; in High and Low, after initial resistance, Kurosawa’s protagonist, Kingo Gondo (incarnated by Mifune in a mode of fury just barely contained), accepts the moral imperative to save the boy and is, although not altogether destroyed, brought considerably down in the world.
From McBain’s tight little paperback thriller Kurosawa fashioned one of his most expansive and symphonic works, a film that immerses itself in the minutiae of the modern metropolis—pay phones, streetcars, garbage-disposal centers—while at the same time often approaching pure visual abstraction. The single shot in which undercover cops glance at a crooked mirror to watch their suspect ascending a staircase would not be out of place in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, yet in the context of High and Low’s visual design it is not even obtrusive. Kurosawa—whose first training was as an artist—once remarked that at least from Seven Samurai on, “[I] tried to add my sensitivity as a painter to what I hoped was my increasing know-how as a filmmaker.” The exceptional visual density of High and Low involves a double perception: every frame can be apprehended in terms both of the weightless, two-dimensional surface of a delicately composed painting and of the three-dimensional arena in which heavy bodies move and contend with reckless energy. (When Mifune’s Gondo notes, near the beginning, that “shoes carry all her body weight,” it only emphasizes the precise sense we always have in Kurosawa of the force displaced in each footfall.)
The director revels in the geometric play permitted by the widescreen ratio; we are positively invited to appreciate his constantly changing designs, as when Gondo opens curtains and a sliding glass door in abrupt horizontal movements analogous to the curiously old-fashioned wipes that were always Kurosawa’s signature form of narrative transition. The binding agent is the editing, with which Kurosawa, working often with footage captured from multiple angles simultaneously, freely cuts in and out of different spatial planes. There is no more conscious exercise in virtuosity in Kurosawa’s oeuvre. The bullet-train sequence, in which Gondo throws briefcases filled with ransom money through a bathroom window on the moving train while police detectives frantically film what ensues, runs less than six minutes and is rich enough in visual and rhythmic intricacies for a whole film.
These bravura technical flourishes are not a matter of gratuitous showing off. The controlled harnessing of energies that might otherwise spin out of control, the pulling together of the disparate material elements he’s working with, embody Kurosawa’s sense of morally purposeful action. The train sequence is immediately preceded by a scene in which the beleaguered Gondo, reminded of his origins as an ordinary shoemaker, takes out his old tool kit to assist the police in booby-trapping the briefcases with tracking devices, a gesture at once of humility and mastery. High and Low takes inventory of the capacities of the director’s own tool kit, with such concentrated intensity that every moment is in some sense climactic. We move in rapid cuts from one indelible visual formulation to another, each held barely long enough to take in before another replaces it.
The movements of Kurosawa’s symphony correspond to different locations: Gondo’s lavish apartment, with its commanding view of Yokohama, the narrow aisles of the bullet train, the sweltering police precinct, the lower depths where Gondo’s mansion becomes a reflection in garbage-filled water, and finally the prison where Gondo confronts his nemesis. Within these locations (each of which has its own distinct mood and narrative focus) there are openings to further spaces: the inner lining of a shoe, exposed to demonstrate its shoddiness; the picture of Mount Fuji over the sea, drawn by the kidnapped child (which will rhyme eventually with the actual Fuji, half visible through mist); the 8 mm movie of the retrieval of the ransom; the marks left on a writing pad by a drug addict’s frantic message; the illustrative fragments of urban geography interpolated in the precinct sequence; the murky hidden worlds of bars, drug-ridden alleyways, and cheap hotels; and the point of no return—the glass barrier in which criminal and victim each find the other’s face reflected.
The definition of space is not only the method but the subject of High and Low. Everything pivots around the spatial relationship between Gondo, in his mansion on the hill, and the kidnapper, looking up from below in his airless shack. The first third of the film is confined chiefly to the limits of Gondo’s luxurious, modern, and, especially by Japanese standards, dazzlingly large living room. As the film begins, we are plunged into the final stages of a business meeting abruptly going sour, as the small-minded and rapacious executives of National Shoes fail to bring their colleague Gondo on board in their bid to cheapen the product line and take over the company. A mood of claustrophobia and hostility is established instantly as Gondo brandishes the cheap “new line” shoe sample like a sword and then proceeds to tear it apart with methodical rage. The scene at once invokes and parodies the string of samurai roles that Mifune had just played for Kurosawa.
Mifune’s whole performance is imbued with similar gestural allusions. Pacing back and forth in the throes of the business deal by which he plans to effect his own coup d’état at National Shoes, Gondo wields a drink and a telephone as if they were ritual objects bestowing occult power; and later in the film, when he asks the police to remain in the room during a business conference, it’s with the brusque, almost unconscious imperiousness of an overlord used to being obeyed. (In McBain’s novel, the police detest Douglas King and firmly put him in his place; in High and Low, Nakadai’s Inspector Tokura and his colleagues come to admire Gondo and serve his interests with devotion.) This subtext explodes into a stunning tableau when the chauffeur, Aoki, begging the reluctant Gondo to pay the ransom for his son, finally prostrates himself as if at the feet of a daimyo. As Aoki kneels at center screen, Gondo stands at the extreme right, looking downward and away, as if under unbearable pressure, while Inspector Tokura, seated at the other side of the screen and struggling to restrain his discomfort, looks leftward. The scene also occurs in King’s Ransom—“‘Do you want me to get down on my knees, Mr. King? Shall I get on my knees and beg you?’ He dropped to his knees, and [detective] Carella winced and turned away”—but with nothing like the layers of historical resonance and emotional complication that Kurosawa is able to suggest in a single serene composition.
From samurai to shoe manufacturer: Gondo retains the combative instincts and self-conscious pride of an earlier era while struggling to reconcile himself to life as a company man. Much like Kurosawa (who had left Toho to form his own production company in 1960) fending off the perceived cheapening of Japanese cinema, Gondo touts the virtues of his own individualistic path: “I’ll make my ideal shoes: comfortable, durable, yet stylish. Expensive to make maybe, but profitable in the long run.” With his apparently traditional and compliant wife, Reiko (Kyoko Kagawa), at his side, Gondo seems poised to oversee a paean to craft-minded entrepreneurship along the lines of Robert Wise’s Executive Suite. But with the kidnapper’s phone call we are quickly knocked out of that movie—the first of many sudden shifts of focal point. In most films involving a kidnapped child, for example, the fate of the child remains in play until the last reel; here we know his fate a third of the way through, and can survey the police hunt for the kidnapper without that emotional distraction.
High and Low in a sense is a film with no center, or a film whose center is everywhere: it is concerned with mapping all the human contacts, no matter how tiny or apparently insignificant, that fall within its scope. Gondo may be the samurai hero of his own drama, but in the course of the film he will be seen from many angles, and often—for most of the second half—he will disappear from view altogether. He has his grand plan to seize control of National Shoes, just as the kidnapper has his grand plan to commit a perfect crime and exact an immense ransom. The film’s own grand plan is to keep turning the plot around to look at it from other angles, through different eyes.
The real hero might be neither Gondo nor Inspector Tokura but the bald, blunt, bull-like Head Detective Taguchi, a working-class hero of the oldest school who can barely hold back his contempt for the weaselly executives of National Shoes when they hang Gondo out to dry; or perhaps Aoki, who suffers not only the loss of his child but the intolerable burden of having him restored at his employer’s expense, placing him in the position of having received a gift he can never repay and that has destroyed the giver; or, most appropriately, the kidnapped child, Shinichi, who keeps cool enough to record precise impressions of his surroundings and of his kidnapper and who interrupts the unobservant adults to call their attention to the film’s most unexpected visual effect: the pink smoke signaling that the kidnapper is burning the booby-trapped briefcases in which he collected the ransom.
We might even want to bring to the center for a moment the discreet, sometimes almost invisible presence of Gondo’s wife; it is she, after all, who tells him from the outset that “success isn’t worth losing your humanity,” and whose understated moral suasion directs his ultimate course of action. (Aside from two heroin addicts who both turn up dead, she is the only significant female character in the drama—not surprising, perhaps, from a director who once told Donald Richie that “women simply aren’t my specialty.”)
The pink smoke—the only burst of color in a black-and-white film—marks the moment when the film definitively descends from heaven to hell, the point of entry being a dump that burns “everything that can’t be disinfected.” This is the juncture when those above finally take notice of the life below them, even if only in the form of burned evidence. Those below, on the other hand, could always see what was above them. “From down there,” as the inspector notes on his arrival in Gondo’s apartment, “if he’s got a telescope, the kidnapper can see this entire room.” The kidnapper, then, has possessed from the beginning the same power as Kurosawa’s camera: to command space and find every hiding place within Gondo’s seemingly impregnable aerie. To hide from those eyes, even the police are forced to crawl on the floor.
The kidnapper, a medical intern named Ginjiro Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki), wears dark glasses, the badge of the lurker who sees without being seen. He does not speak on-screen until the last scene of the movie—even then refusing to divulge his story or his real motives. The police-hunt for Takeuchi tells us little about him but much about Kurosawa’s vision of the nether regions of modern Japan. The luridness of that vision—a swirl of noisy bars with multiracial clienteles and dark side streets swarming with drug addicts who resemble the incarcerated lepers of Fritz Lang’s fantasia The Indian Tomb—is now, as it was on first release, the least persuasive aspect of High and Low. The imagined horrors of that murky inferno simply cannot compete with the clearly delineated nastiness of the National Shoes executive team, for all the expressive beauties of the camera work that Kurosawa brings to bear.
But the structural force of his conception holds firm right through to that devastating (and much-analyzed) confrontation between Gondo and Takeuchi as the latter awaits execution. Nothing is more powerful about this scene than its refusal to provide any disclosure that would explain what we have just been through. What the kidnapper offers finally is not an explanation but a scream of pain. As the guards whisk him out of sight and a dark barrier descends in front of Gondo, the effect is like the typical brusque ending of a Noh play, as ghost or demon vanishes and the chorus intones: “And thereupon the spirit faded and was gone.”
In place of some clarification of what all this might mean, then, we are left with Gondo alone, facing a blank barrier. At the beginning of the movie, caught up in the effort to grab the company’s power for himself, he was already treading a dangerously individualistic path. Now he has finally succeeded in being fully alone in a society in which lives impinge relentlessly one on another, and has thereby—whether he wanted to or not—achieved the solitariness that was the kidnapper’s whole identity. The two have essentially become one—but we already knew that from the way the face of each, staring through the glass, was superimposed on the other. Takeuchi is a demon of isolation, defiantly cut loose from those indispensable ties of human contact that are measured throughout every frame of High and Low by a constant play of glances and postures. Hierarchies and group identities, and the impulses that can undermine them from within, are charted so clearly that we can draw the invisible lines connecting any character with any other character. From moment to moment they cannot help but show us where they are. The space to which Kurosawa devotes such consummate skill is a space defined by human relations, and is thus necessarily a space of constant turmoil, pressure, and struggle, right up to the moment when the barrier slams shut.
Geoffrey O’Brien’s books include Sonata for Jukebox, Castaways of the Image Planet, The Browser’s Ecstasy, The Phantom Empire, and The Fall of the House of Walworth. He is editor in chief of the Library of America. This essay originally appeared in the Criterion Collection's 2008 DVD edition of High and Low.