High and Low – Akira Kurosawa asks which is heaven and which is hell?
High and Low is an adaptation of an American novel entitled Kings Ransom written by Ed McBain in 1959. The film is divided largely into three parts, using the crime thriller genre to give us a large dose of Kurosawa’s trade mark social criticism. In the balance between money and incorruptible life, everyone must choose and this is the question Kurosawa places before modern Japan. Gordo must choose the life of a small boy or his fortune. He must decide between financial bankruptcy or moral bankruptcy. In the same way, Japan must make their own decision about their hyper industrialised state. With the money from industry come the moral baggage of prostitution and heroin addiction. Akira Kurosawa asks the viewer to choose.
The first part of the film takes place in the apartment of the unfortunate Kingo Gordo (Toshiro Mifune) who, in the wake of a tumultuous battle with his fellow executives announces to his wife and business associate that he has mortgaged everything he has to support a life long take over bid for the company in which he is a shareholder and has worked all his life. At exactly this moment, it is announced that his son, who was playing with the chauffeurs son the in garden, has been kidnapped with the intention of extorting a huge sum of money from Gordo. Without hesitation Gordo allows himself to be ruined in exchange for the well-being of his son until it is discovered the kidnapper has made an error and taken the chauffeurs boy instead. The Kidnapper decides to go ahead with his plan and continues to demand the same amount of money from Gordo, who must now decide if he is as willing to allow himself to go into financial ruin for the life of someone else’s child.
This part of the film takes place almost entirely in Gordo’s apartment, with only the opening and closing of the drapes giving the viewer any relief from the claustrophobic feel of the apartment. As different stake holders give their perspectives, characters are moved around the room as if they are on the chess board. The police have arrived at Gordo’s enormous house on the top of the hill that looks over the village below and it is soon discovered that the kidnapper is looking at the family through the windows, but because the house overlooks the entire town, this only serves to make those in the house more vulnerable. The tides have turned,. Where once Gordo in all his wealth looked down over the people below, when the power shifts he is a vulnerable sitting duck, exposed and afraid.
A major theme of the film is our observation of the other (I haven’t read the book to know if this is a Kurosawa observation or if it comes directly from the book) and given the fact that this a film, the viewers ability to observe is used to enhance the narrative. Film 1010 Mise en scene is a stylistic form of filming that is French for “staging the shot”, which is referring to everything in front of the camera. Most of the shots are encased, have a frame of some description, giving the viewer not just the anxious claustrophobic feel, but also an experience of voyeurism. The train scene where Gordo has to deliver the money is shot from inside the train looking out the windows at the criminals who speed by, and are seen successfully capturing the money when the police can do nothing about it. Everyone is watching everyone in this film, and yet no one knows who anyone is.
The second part of the film is the standard detective novel style, where the police are followed as they use observational techniques to track down the killer. They pin point a location by listening to the background noise of his recorded phone conversations and the drawings of the memory of the saved boy become crucial in tracking the killer down. Identifiers like coloured smoke (pink smoke is the only colour to appear in the film), bandages and the interpretation of scrawled notes lead the police more and more to narrowing the kidnapper down. ‘Don’t get too close, but don’t take your eyes off him!’ exhorts Chief Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) to the police when they finally find him, and a cat and mouse game of observation begins.
In this third section of the narrative the film techniques are enhanced again, to give us the closed in feel of the chase. The most simplistic way that Kurosawa uses the mise en scene is in the disco bar. He uses the arrangement of objects, space manipulation, as well as lighting to catch the eye of the viewer. Here we see a young Japanese girl who enters the bar and goes to the jukebox. But the viewer’s attention is still drawn to the criminal, Ginji Takeuchi, who is sitting at the bar. But when the girl reaches the jukebox and puts in money to play a selection, the viewer’s attention is diverted to her. This is because she is now framed by two disco ball-like polls that are glittering and shining from the dance lights from above. The space manipulation comes from the fact that the polls which she is standing between help separate her from all the action coming from the extras, who are dancing on the dance floor, as well as the criminal who is still sitting at the bar. You could also say that the dancers on the dance floor act as a separation between the Japanese girl and the kidnapper.
The scene in dope alley is an excellent example of this technique. Here the only view the viewer is allowed is through the window of one of the buildings in the alley. The space manipulation quickly gives the scene an intense feeling of anxiety. The viewer is only limited to the kidnapper who is in background and a heroin addict who is very disturbed, suffering from withdrawal symptoms. Occasionally, the viewer sees the detectives peeking around the corner in the far left of the windowed scene. This combined with the dark lighting of the alley sets a very disturbing feeling, suggesting that something is about to happen. The feeling that the action that will follow will be evil is emphasized by the reflection of the lighting on the sunglasses of the kidnapper. The reflection appears to be like eyes, which are lit up devilishly. This feeling is continued by the reflection again of the drug addict in the kidnapper’s sunglasses as he approaches her, which heightens the action of the events. (I got help for this last section from an excellent unnamed film analysis that can be found here.)
In the final scene, we are all locked inside a jail where victim and criminal come face to face before the sentence that will take the life of the criminal. Each are separated from their intense conversation by a glass petition that constantly shows the reflection of each in the other. The viewer is left with the question, who is the criminal and who is the victim here? Our kidnapper confesses it was Gordo’s mansion on the hill, overlooking the entire town that motivated him to want to lash out at the uncaring industrialist. The men stare each other down one isolated by his love of money and the other by his hatred of the hierarchical structure of society. Only wealth separates them. Wealth and permission. One plays a cut-throat game by the rules, and the other plays an equally cut-throat game against the rules, because inside the rules he is excluded. Even at the very end, Kurosawa asks us to choose.