In his penultimate role with Kurosawa, Toshiro Mifune plays Kingo Gondo, a wealthy executive of the National Shoe Company who has put all his assets at stake in a gambit to gain control of the company and start producing high quality shoes. Even in this seemingly banal setup Kurosawa takes a swipe how the sudden postwar introduction of capitalism in Japan quickly led to corruption: the bean counters in charge couldn't care less about show quality as long as they turn a profit. Gondo, a more idealized mixture of Traditionalism and the purer aspects of new Japan, manages to borrow 50 million yen against everything he owns. But what does that matter? Soon he'll run the whole company.
Then Gondo receives a phone call. A man claims to have his son, and unless Gondo coughs up 30 million yen the boy will die. The family panics, until young Jun walks through the door, happy as can be. Turns out, the kidnapper snatched the son of Gondo's chauffeur by mistake. Crisis averted, right? Wrong. In a stunning display of effrontery, the kidnapper still demands the ransom.
Kurosawa sets up this first hour magnificently; as police set up equipment to monitor calls and advise him on how to act, Gondo must decide whether the life of a boy he has no relation to is worth giving up nearly all of his fortune. Even the chauffeur knows he cannot ask his boss to give so much, and resigns himself to his fate. Yet Gondo ultimately sides with his conscience, and agrees to the payoff.
The resulting payment sequence is one of the finest in Kurosawa's repertoire. The kidnapper, knowing full well Gondo went to the police, instructs Gondo that the swap will occur on a bullet train, yet when he boards he learns that the criminal isn't even on the train, and that Gondo must dump the money out of the window when he sees the pickup man. In a series of shots so rapidly yet skillfuly cut together that it seems almost unbroken despite its multiple angles and settings, the train passes young Shinichi being held hostage, then the camera cuts back to Gondo before jumping out of the train again to see the pickup man, cutting back for Gondo to rapidly unload his payment. It's not the explosive action of Ran or Seven Samurai, but it's so masterfully shot that it seems almost as epic.
All of this happens by the end of the first hour, leaving you to wonder where the film can go from here. Well, never count out Kurosawa's ability to structure his films originally. The second half plays out as a police procedural. Here we descend into the "hell" portion; as the cops try to track down the money and the criminals. Kurosawa lays a bit with a literal notion of hell; in an earlier phone call, the kidnapper mentioned how it was over a hundred degrees down where he was. Now, as the police return to the station to map out an investigation, we see them sweating profusely in the sweltering heat. In Gondo's high-rise mansion they seem to have all the answers, to be cool and thoughtful, yet in the station they try frantically to piece together the clues in confusion.
Eventually Kurosawa moves into the actual streets, and we see just how disparate the class gap really is. Detectives move through slums that seep with fetid water and rusted iron. We see Gondo's mansion in the reflection of some standing water, and it casts his home as the castle lording over the peasants. Later, a man walks through a brothel, and all the strung-out junkie whores surround him, pawing and wheezing like asthmatic zombies as he denies their wares. Then cops try to follow the suspect through, and these same zombies suddenly rally and refuse the cops entry.
When the police finally capture Shinichi's kidnapper, Takeuchi, and Gondo meets with him, the two discuss such disparities within the city. Takeuchi, a medical intern, actually lived in the shadow of Gondo's home, and committed his crime because "it's amusing to make fortunate men taste the same misery as the unfortunate." He's known only struggle in his life, to the point that he feels he can never reach Gondo's level, so he decides to tear the businessman down to his instead. It's a poignant commentary on how people become locked into poverty and the greed and envy it fosters.
Takeuchi goes mad because he cannot face the new Japan.
Kurosawa mercilessly plays with our expectations with this film, even though the film stops being a thriller at the mid-point, it remains gripping due to his fast editing and epic widescreen ratio he used for the film. One can read endless symbolism into his use of the widescreen, how it illustrates the chasm between classes or how it can capture images fully and contrast their angles with the camera's, but when you get right down to it the ratio makes everything more exciting. Consider the moment when the kidnapper tells Gondo he's looking up at the businessman's house and is suspicious that the curtains are closed. After hiding the cops, the curtain whips open (in a manner not altogether unlike Kurosawa's trademark wipe transitions, and it establishes in two seconds the vastness of Gondo's house in a way you simply hadn't noticed before. He, like Ozu, that other great Japanese director, tends to flatten his scenes with his lens, yet somehow it makes everything seem more alive, more vibrant.
He also denies us a typical Hollywood ending. Films like normally play like a retelling of the story of Job: a man who makes the right choice (or a life of righteousness in Job's case) loses everything for his goodness, is plunged into a fit of despair (yet never loses his virtue) and ultimately receives everything back as a reward, just 'cause I suppose. Indeed, the actual book Kurosawa adapted, King's Ransom by Ed McBain, ended in such a fashion. Yet Kurosawa does let us off so easily; he knows that the right choice does not always come with a reward, that it can damage or even kill you. After all, isn't that why it's so hard to do the right thing?
Gondo's fate is not entirely bleak; he becomes a hero in the eyes of the public, while people boycott the National Shoe Company when they learn how executives used the kidnapping as an excuse to shut Gondo out. Nevertheless, he loses a considerable amount of status in the process, and one wonders how what his future has in store for him.
Mifune, normally so unrestrained and vibrant, places all of that manic energy in the suit of an executive. He has outbursts, to be sure, but he's more nuanced than ever before; Mifune usually erased the line between inner turmoil and outward expression but here bottle his emotions within. Also bringing his A-game is Tatsuya Nakadai, in his second role for Kurosawa after playing the gun-toting Unosuke in Yojimbo; here he plays Chief Detective Tokura, a cool and collected cop who places all of his efforts on finding the boy yet still empathizes with Gondo for his position. Though Gondo is certainly the emotional center of the film, Tokura is no less important and shows a vision of the police that is neither romanticized nor cynical.
High and Low easily deserves a spot on the short list of Kurosawa's great films. Of course, that "short list" is about half his filmography, but even then this must surely rank near the top. It perhaps lacks the visceral power of his more epic samurai productions, but it nevertheless teems with life and paints a multi-layered portrait of poverty, class and greed without ever patting itself on the back for examining social issues. How many films can be as thrilling in the investigation office as they are in the chases?