***Spoiler Warning*** Yes, once again, I’m writing about a 50+ year old movie, but to me that doesn’t matter. As I’ve noted before, if you’ve never seen the film, it’s a new movie to you, and there are certain twists in the plot that I will be discussing that you might not want to know about, so I’m gonna go ahead and throw a general warning up here just in case. ***End Warning***
I’m not sure when exactly the English title of Akira Kurosawa’s Tengoku to Jigoku got changed from it’s literal translation of Heaven and Hell to High and Low, but either one fits the movie quite well, for it is definitely a film of contrasts not only in social hierarchy and settings, but in the very structure of the film itself.
We often talk about films and plays having a three-act structure, but I can hardly think of a more clearly delineated example of this idea than what Kurosawa chooses to put before his audience here.
The first act, which lasts around 55 minutes is an almost pure chamber drama which could just as easily have been a one-set play. That’s not to say that it’s in any way static, for a master film maker like Kurosawa would never let that happen, but simply that it all takes place on one set, the interior of protagonist Kingo Gondo’s house (rarely even straying from his living room), a decision that serves very well to ramp up the tension and the increasingly strained relationships between the characters that appear on screen.
The second act of the film is set on a speeding bullet train, which constrains the movement of the characters even more, and in doing so not only heightens the tension and places an unexpected emphasis on every move that they make, but because of the constant movement of the train and the nature of the scenes taking place there, also gives this second act a feeling of only having one chance to get the actions that must take place there right, a tension which also, according to interviews with the participants, seems to have permeated the shoot itself.
Then in the third and final act, the movie turns into a pure police procedural, expanding out into the cities of Japan itself even as the police force begin to close in on the kidnapper who has set all of this in motion.
Based on one of American writer Ed McBain’s 87th precinct novels, King’s Ransom, which Kurosawa read and decided he wanted to adapt as a film, High and Low may very well be one of the best – at least in terms of getting the atmosphere correct, even if the plot (and of course, the setting and a number of the characters) is not exactly faithful to the original – adaptations of any of McBain’s works. For those who are not familiar with the 87th Precinct books (I’ll note here that I am a huge fan of them, having discovered them in my youth and have read a number of them over the years, though if I’ve actually read King’s Ransom I have to admit it was so long ago that it has faded into the depths of distant memory) I’ll simply say that he was way ahead of his time, writing realistic and very detailed police procedurals before the format became “cool”, and one of the things that Kurosawa does right is to take the time to let the audience feel the tedium and amount of work, manpower, and sheer drudgery that goes into solving a case like this, unlike so many of today’s CSI offspring which make it seem as though just the right clue is simply waiting to jump into the investigators’ hands, and that getting precisely the information that is needed to crack the case is a mere phone call or five minute test analysis away.
Getting back to the idea of contrasts, Kurosawa (and again, I can’t really speak to how much of this is in the original novel and how much is Kurosawa and co-screenwriters Eijirō Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, and Hideo Oguni invention, so I’m simply going to credit it to Kurosawa) also makes the most of the contrasts not only between the protagonist, Gondo (played, as usual, to perfection by Kurosawa favorite Toshiro Mifune) and the antagonist/kidnapper Ginjirô Takeuchi (portrayed with just the right combination of desperation and sleaze by Tsutomu Yamazaki), but even in the cultural hierarchy between Gordo and his assistants, most especially chauffeur Aoki, whose son it is the kidnapper has taken by mistake instead of Gondo’s own son. It’s this hierarchical distance which means that there is nothing that Aoki can do to save his own son except to plead on hands and knees for his boss to pay the demanded ransom even though he knows that doing so will ruin Gondo financially just when Gondo was seemingly on the cusp of securing his own fortune and his family’s future forever.
Of course, it’s also this hierarchical chasm that separates Gondo from the kidnapper, who claims to have been motivated to take the actions that he does because he has had to spend his life always looking up at the seeming heaven of Gondo’s home which sits high on a hill while he has been living in the hell that is the depths of the city. (And yes, this is where the more literal interpretation of the title – whichever translation you prefer – comes into play.)
Before I move on, there is one other hierarchical contrast that I feel is worth pointing out, and that is the one between the kidnapper and the dwellers in “dope alley” where those who are hooked on the heroin that he is using to make the murder of his accomplices look like an accidental overdose eventually wind up. The sad reality that is pointed out here is that no matter how low the kidnapper may feel in contrast to Kingo Gondo, at least he is still living a life far above that of these desperate souls, a fact that Kurosawa never explicitly feels the need to point out, yet being the master story teller that he is, makes clear.
There are, of course, many other examples of highs and lows that can be found in the film, including, as I’ve already mentioned, the change that occurs in Gondo’s fortunes when he makes the fateful decision to go ahead and pay the ransom no matter how it may personally affect him financially.
Interestingly, it is Gondo himself who provides the major link between the worlds of the high and low. Yes, it is his wealth and his mansion on the hill that provides the spark for the action in the movie, but at the same time, largely thanks to Mifune’s masterful portrayal of this emotionally torn character, he can just as easily be seen as a man who is as trapped by that wealth as anyone who lives below him.
This first becomes apparent in the opening scene where we see an informal meeting taking place between Gondo and a number of the members of the board of directors of the shoe making corporation of which Gondo is the president. They are threatening to oust him from his position unless he goes along with their plans to make lesser quality shoes that they have designed which they can still sell at the same price as they would the ones they had been making, but will cost less. Tearing an example of the shoes that they wish to manufacture apart before their eyes, Gondo refuses to even consider their idea because he is not willing to put his hard-earned reputation behind a shoe that he knows will quickly fall apart.
The board members, on the other hand, threaten a hostile takeover of the corporation, saying that they can get “the Big Man” (the never-seen majority stockholder of the corporation) to side with them if he doesn’t go along with their scheme. After they leave, giving him the rest of the night to come to a decision, Gondo reveals that he has anticipated this threat and made arrangements to buy just enough stock to thwart the board’s plans by making himself the majority stockholder. Of course, this has required him to mortgage his house and all of his belongings to raise the necessary capitol, so if the deal falls through, then he will be penniless.
This, then is the dilemma that Gondo faces when the demand for ransom comes through: Does he put the life of his chauffeur’s in danger and refuse to pay it, thus saving himself and his family from destitution, or does he use the money to pay the ransom, saving the boy’s life, but ruining his own family?
Which will he choose? To continue to live in Heaven while forcing his servant into a particular kind of Hell? Or potentially losing everything and return to his own low birth status which he has spent his entire life trying to climb out of?
I really feel like there is so much more that could be written about this movie, and there are quite a few aspects of it that I have barely even touched on, such as the grittiness of the the entire third act where we see the action move from the first act’s high outlook of Gondo’s hilltop house into the streets that lie below it, or how Gondo’s own low beginnings eventually provide him with succor as he faces his own personal hell, but to do these topics justice would really take this essay beyond the scope of this blog, so I think I’ll just end here by saying that I think it’s obvious that I consider High and Low to easily be a perfect example of a masterwork by a master storyteller at the height of his craft, and a movie that deserves more recognition and one that you should definitely seek out if you’ve never had the opportunity to see it.
Here’s a trailer: