Sunday, December 28, 2008

High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)

Toshiro Mifune as Kingo Gondo in Akira Kurosawa's High And Low (1963).

Akira Kurosawa's High and Low is a great kidnap thriller starring Toshiro Mifune as Kingo Gondo, a shoe manufacturer who is staking everything he owns on a deal to take over the company he works for when a kidnapper calls and demands a huge sum of money for Gondo's son. The thing is though, it isn't Gondo's son that is kidnapped but Gondo's driver's son.

High and Low in some ways reminded me of The Bad Sleep Well in that it deals with the corruption among company leaders, or rather, the ruthlessness of company leaders. It's not as central as in The Bad.. but it's there. High and Low's main focus is on the differences between rich and poor, those who live at the top of society and those who live at the bottom.

Gondo lives in a house up on the hills above the city. His house is big and airy with big windows and open spaces and it is visible to everyone who lives in the hot, crowded city down below, where the kidnapper is calling from. One day, Gondo is approached by the other directors of the shoe manufacturing company to take over the company together with them and start mass producing cheap shoes that won't last, but he refuses. Not only because of the reason he gives the directors, that he wants to keep making quality shoes, but also because he has his own long going plans to take it over all by himself. All he has left to do is to send his assistant over with a check for 50 million yen and the company is his. But then the kidnapper calls.

The kidnapper demands 30 million yen as ransom for Gondo's son, Jun. Gondo immediately agrees to pay the sum even though it will ruin him. Soon after, Jun comes into the room and everyone is relieved but it soon dawns on them that Jun's friend Shinichi, who he was just playing with, is missing. Shinichi is the son of Gondo's driver, and soon the kidnapper calls again having realised his mistake but he still demands that Gondo pays the ransom. This time, Gondo refuses and calls the police instead. Who would want to ruin himself and his family for someone else's child? That is what Gondo has to wrestle with while the police, headed by Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) is trying to catch the kidnapper. Gondo's wife and Aoki, the driver, is begging him to pay, but he refuses, saying that since his wife was born wealthy, she doesn't know to appreciate what they would have to sacrifice.

When the police are unable to catch the kidnapper within the time limit he has given, Gondo agrees to pay and the child is released. This makes Gondo a national hero, but the creditors who he owes money doesn't care, Gondo is ruined. While all of Gondo's possesions are being repo'd, the chase for the kidnapper goes on.

Tatsuya Nakadai in pursuit of the kidnapper, Tsutomu Yamazaki.

After it has turned out that the kidnapper is a medical student who lives in a tiny apartment below Gondo's house, and that his motive seemingly is simple jealosy it brings the film down a little at the very end. Even if the reason is to show that hard work pays off and that some things are worth sacrificing for, as in the case of Gondo working himself to the top and paying off the ransom, and that chosing the easy way of crime will always leave you at the bottom, it feels a bit too simple. But up until that point, which is at the very end of the film, High and Low is a phenomal thriller. With the first half being Gondo's personal struggle with his morals and conscience and the second being the cops chasing the kidnapper, the tension is high through the entire film and never lets up.

I'm not sure, though, what Kurosawa really wanted to say. The character of Takeuchi is a medical student, who should be able to become something, or is he envisioning the rest of his life as taking place in the tiny apartment below Gondo's house. Gondo is also someone who has worked his way to the top, so why hate him? Or is it just because he built a house that everyone could see, is he rubbing his hard earned wealth in people's faces and deserves to be robbed of what he has? When Takeuchi is arrested and confronted with Gondo, it turns out that after his arrest, he tried to commit suicide, not wanting to take responsibilty for his actions. He is entirely weak and probably insane, yet Gondo's face is superimposed on Takeuchi's. Are they the same or is it as a contrast? At the same time as the ending feels like the weakest part of the film, it also gives the most to think about.