High and Low never wavers under the assured direction of Akira Kurosawa. It is, all at once: a procedural crime story, a social commentary on the casualties of industrialization, the redemption of a man’s soul. A wealthy executive, Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), hosts an informal board meeting in his insular residence atop a hill, overlooking the urban decay of industrial Japan. A corporate subversion is proposed, leading to the polite, but forced retirement of the traditionalist company president. At stake is the direction of National Shoes: quality versus profitability. Gondo disagrees with the ouster, and plans a takeover bid, raising capital by mortgaging his property. On the eve of the transaction, he receives a telephone call demanding ransom for the return of his son. However, the kidnapper has mistakenly taken the chauffeur, Aoki’s (Yutaka Sada) son. To pay the exorbitant ransom will financially ruin him. To refuse payment will make him morally bankrupt.
As the title suggests, elevation provides a visual leitmotif to the narrative development of High and Low. Gondo’s estate, the landmark recognition of Mount Fuji, and the smoke stack from a garbage-burning plant (note the only infusion of color into the film), all provide pivotal clues to the identity of the kidnapper. The second telephone call provides a subtle statural shift between Gondo, the police (who are forced to lie prone on the floor to avoid detection), and Aoki (overcome with emotion), symbolizing Gondo’s moral redemption. The low lying squatter hovels, addict-infested Dope Alley, and red light district basement bar provide an incongruous foil to the prosperity and seeming order of modern Japan. In the end, Gondo’s wealth is the price of one man’s salvation, and another’s destruction.
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