Off-List: High and Low
I am a big fan of Kurosawa movies and so as one of the off-list movies for 1963 I have chosen Kurosawa’s “High and Low”. When I reviewed the 1962 movie “Sanjuro” I made the statement that there is always a place on the List for Kurosawa films. That is a statement I stand by, but in the case of “High and Low” I have a weaker case. To put it straight, “High and Low” is in my opinion not up to the very high standard I have come to expect from Kurosawa and in a better year I would not have added this one to the List. 63 however is turning out to be a miserable year for the List and this movie is better than at least half I have watched so far.
“High and Low” is a departure from the period dramas featuring samurai that made Kurosawa famous. Instead it is a contemporary crime thriller, emulating similar American ones. In fact it is based on a novel by Ed McBain and transplanted to Japan.
The wealthy executive Mr. Gondo (Tohiro Mifune) is about to embark on the gamble of his professional life. A group of managers is about to coup the current president of National Shoes and in return Gondo will do a counter coup, ousting the rebels and putting himself in charge of the company. To that effect he has mobilized the staggering sum of 50 million yen, his entire fortune, which just need to be paid in Osaka. At this point Gondo receives a fateful phone call. A kidnapper has taken his son and demands 30 million yen to return him. Even though it soon turns out the kidnapper got the wrong boy, he actually got his play-mate, the driver’s boy, Gondo is still facing the dilemma of losing a boy or his company.
The police get involved, headed by Chief Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), and a hunt starts for the kidnappers. Gondo decides to pay up and once the boy is back the police is let loose to track down the culprit.
“High and Low” refers to the two sides of the story. First half of the movie is focused on the wealthy Gondo in his villa on top of the hill, whereas the second part takes place down in the town below among the bottom of society. This also means that the first half is about the dilemma of Gondo, the decision and the consequences of that decision, whereas the second half is a manhunt.
It is interesting to see Tokyo anno 1963 and it is interesting to see something else than samurai from Kurosawa. The idea of the movie is interesting and there is a lot of potential in the story. Ironically, considering Kurosawa is here much closer to western themes, there are cultural barriers (I suppose) in place here, which detracts from my viewing experience.
The acting appears staged and wooden, something I did not expect from Kurosawa. It looks amateurish, though I suspect it is simply Japanese culture. This is unfortunate because it detracts from the realism.
Secondly the pacing is off. Every scene is about 20% too long, at least, and the whole movie drags. This is particularly so in the beginning, we never seem to get out of Gondo’s living room, but even the climactic ending is far too long and as a thriller this is disastrous.
How much this is just being Japanese and how much this is a failing of the movie I do not know. In fact it could simply be me having very high expectations. This is not a bad movie by any right, there is a lot that works here, but to me, this is just not Kurosawa at his best. He took the western genre and improved on it. His attempt to do the same for the thriller was not as magnificent.