Monday, July 25, 2011

Underrated Movie #125: High and Low

Title: High and Low
Director:Akira Kurosawa
Writers: Hideo Oguni, Ryûzô Kikushima, Eijirô Hisaita, Akira Kurosawa
Stars: Toshirô Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyôko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Isao Kimura, Kenjiro Ishiyama

The Story: A Tokyo shoe company executive, in the middle of a takeover deal, gets a phone call that his son has been kidnapped—then his son walks into the room. It turns out that the kidnappers have accidentally grabbed his chauffeur’s son instead, but they insist that the executive pay up anyway. After the fateful decision is made, the movie becomes a gritty thriller as the police swing into action to do their part.

How it Came to be Underrated: Kurosawa is universally adored for his samurai pictures, but his modern-day crime movies are far less well-known. I would say that this challenges even Seven Samurai and Ran as a contender for the title of Kurosawa’s masterpiece.

Why It’s Great:

  1. This is one of the most conceptually audacious movies ever made: it is all about dualities of high and low in every possible way: rich vs. poor, a mansion on a hill vs. a slum in a pit, high-quality shoes vs. low-cost knock-offs, high-minded moral decisions vs. lowly police work. Kurosawa’s brilliant idea was to mirror these dualities by splitting his movie, right down the center, into two different styles: the first half (the moral conumdrum) is very “high-art”: all on a tripod, very still, much like the classical Japanese cinema that Kurosawa had always resisted. Then, once the decision is made, we are abruptly slammed down into the chaotic “low-art” of Kurosawa at his gritty best.
  2. Only in the justly-famous final scene do the two worlds finally come together, as the high-minded businessman and the lowly criminal finally come face to face, but each can only see the other as a reflection of himself. Money may have changed hands, but the line between high and low (or Heaven and Hell, as the title could also be translated) can never truly be crossed.
  3. I was such a fan of this movie that I tried to track down the source material, an American pulp novel called “King’s Ransom” by Ed McBain, one of his “87th Precinct” police procedurals. It was long out of print and I couldn’t find it, but I did find other “87th” novels and started reading those. They quickly became great favorites of mine, so I’m eternally grateful. When I finally did land a copy of “King’s Ransom” years later, I was surprised to see that the first half was more loyally adapted than the second half. I shouldn’t have been surprised: moral condundrums are more universal than the particulars of police work.
  4. Moral dilemmas that revolve around money are very compelling in real life, but it’s almost impossible to portray them onscreen. We all have a vague sense that it would be a bummer to lose a lot of money, but if you’re going to show someone agonizing over giving up their fortune for a human life, the audience is going to be disgusted—unless you create a very specific, very compelling need for that money on that day. First Kurosawa gets us to strongly root for Mifune to use his money for a one-time-only opportunity to pull off a daring takeover of his shoe company, saving it from greedy opportunists who want to drive it into the ground, then he gets hit with the dilemma. Amazingly, we agonize along with him.

If You Like This, You Should Also Check Out: Stray Dog was an even grittier Kurosawa cop drama, with Mifune equally great on the other side of the badge. The most wildly entertaining ‘60s Japanese crime movie is probably Branded to Kill.

How Available Is It?: My single-disc Criterion DVD from 1998 is very disappointing: it has no features, the titles are pixilated, the credits aren’t subtitled, it’s non-anamorphic, etc… Still well worth watching, but not up to Criterion standards. Apparently they put out a much better remastered 2-disc version in 2008 with features, so make sure to get that.

Today’s Post Was Brought To You By: The Tie That Blinds!


harvey zissou said...

i concur. high and low is very overlooked and underrated. a top 5 kurosawa film for me. i think red beard challenges seven samurai for the top spot. i will make a formal top 5 in a later date (perhaps on my blog). cheers,

j.s. said...

Nice review. And yeah it's a phenomenal movie, but also hardly underrated, even in relation to Kurosawa's other films. Btw, the new Criterion Blu-ray comes out tomorrow.

Can you think of any other films that are split so dramatically into two separate halves?

Matt Bird said...

Lost Highway? Once Upon a Time in America? The Godfather part 2, but they're intercut. Nothing as severe as High and Low occurs to me.

realbrew said...

It's great all the way until the scene where the kidnapper goes to buy heroin. The music and dancing scene goes on far too long and ruins the high tension built up during the police investigation. And the not-so-subtle suggestion that drugs can only be found in a disco that primarily caters to foreigners smacks of racism, or at least a desire to blame the ills of Japanese society on outsiders. Still a very good films despite these faults.

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