High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku) (1963)

High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku) first published by Movie Gazette in 2005

While involved in a high-stakes bid to take over the shoe company for which he has worked since he was sixteen years old, Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) receives a phone call informing him that his son has been kidnapped, and will be killed if an exorbitant ransom is not handed over. Gondo accepts the demands at once – until it emerges that the kidnapper has mistakenly abducted the chauffeur’s son instead, facing Gondo with an agonising dilemma: pay anyway and lose everything, or do not pay and live with his conscience and integrity forever scarred. Once he has reached his decision, the police, led by Inspector Tokuro (Tatsuya Nakadai), set about tracking down the criminal with only the flimsiest of clues, until finally Gondo and his nemesis Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki) are brought face to face.

While Akira Kurosawa often sought inspiration from Western sources as varied as Shakespeare, Gorky and the Western cinema of John Ford, High and Low (Tengoku to Jigoku), is his only adaptation of a modern novel with a contemporary setting, King’s Ransom (1959). Yet merely the barest skeleton of Ed McBain’s original kidnap-gone-wrong plot has been retained, around which Kurosawa has crafted a moral drama that exposes the hierarchical divisions and conflicting values in Japanese society, without ever forgetting to keep the viewer thoroughly gripped.

High and Low (or ‘heaven and hell’, to preserve the literal meaning of its Japanese title), is structured around a series of polarities – choices and consequences, crime and punishment, privilege and poverty, good and evil – and accordingly it is divided into two sections, each with its own distinctive style. The first half unfolds in the ‘heaven’ of Gondo’s raised hilltop mansion, and uses a sequence of long takes to show Gondo struggling with an awful decision right in the claustrophobic presence of those who will be most affected by it. A brief linking episode on a train, shot hand-held and in real time, races the film into its second half – the meticulous police investigation through the ‘hell’ of sweltering Yokohama down below, moving much more frenetically with fast cuts and multiple locations. Yet Kurosawa manages to make both settings – Gondo’s elevated condo and Takeuchi’s mean streets – seem equally oppressive, and even when the two men’s economic situations are effectively reversed, the character of neither essentially changes.

It is one of the film’s central ironies that for all the differences between them in age and income, both men come from the same humble background. Takeuchi, despite being a medical student with the potential for a successful future, has already chosen an inescapable inferno for himself where life (including his own) has no value, while the self-made Gondo must decide between a course of arrogant selfishness, or of humane altruism. Kurosawa reveals the effect not just of Takeuchi’s choices, but also more subtly of Gondo’s, on everything which follows, and the director is at pains to suggest how easy it would have been for Gondo to reach a different decision (as indeed he did in McBain’s original novel) – until in the end the viewer, like Gondo himself, is left to stare at a blank screen and reflect upon how narrow is the distance in the human heart between heaven and hell.

Summary: Working undercover as a kidnap thriller, Kurosawa’s tale of moral contrasts never ceases to grip.

© Anton Bitel