#5 — High and Low (Akira Kurosawa, 1963)
Director Akira Kurosawa is so strongly associated with samurai films–his signature films that it can be jarring to see him working with a story set outside of feudal Japan. Natural as that reaction might be, it’s also silly, of course. What marks Kurosawa’s filmmaking is a pure command of the mechanics of narrative, the differing levels of emotional intensity and an ability to shape and shift mood. That can translate to any story, any time, any place. John Ford and Howard Hawks may have prospered in westerns, but that didn’t make it strange when they triumphed with other styles of cinematic efforts. Like them, Kurosawa knew his way around the dynamics of a movie like few others, making it thrilling no matter what he leveled his artistic gaze at. Indeed, one of the reasons I am so completely taken with High and Low is that Kurosawa shows just how many different forms he can master within the space of a single feature.
In modern-day Japan, Kurosawa regular Toshirō Mifune plays a wealthy executive who becomes the target of a criminal endeavor just as he’s about to complete a major deal, using most of his personal fortune to do so. He receives a call claiming that his young son has been kidnapped. The criminals demand a sum that will essentially wipe out the executive’s ability to complete the deal. He’s prepared to pay up when his son arrives home, completely safe and with no sense of any problems. In short order, the kidnappers realize their mistake: they inadvertently captured the child of one of the executive’s servants instead of their intended quarry. They still have a child and presumably an enduring desire for money, so they ask for the exact same sum from the man, setting up a particularly sticky moral dilemma. There is still a boy in harm’s way, and the amount is precisely what the executive had been prepared to pay. But now the personal stakes are lowered, with the prospect of a very different sort of guilt if he chooses to ignore the demand.
This psychological back-and-forth represents only the first part of the film, which takes place almost entirely in the spacious apartment of the executive. Kurosawa (working with a trio of other screenwriters) teases out the conflicts and emotional underpinnings of the story like a master playwright, delivering something with the meticulous restraint and intricacy usually associated with the likes of Harold Pinter. For a creator who was best known for the startling momentum of swords and devastating hails of arrows, he has a perfect sense of how to get the same heightened impact out of drawing room debates. From there, the film expands past the apartment, becoming equal parts procedural, thriller and psychodrama, each different form taking turns and then intermingling. The whole time, Kurosawa builds the film with an assurance that is almost its most compelling element. No matter where it goes–how it shifts, what aspect of the story it focuses on–Kurosawa has the film is a tight grip, guiding it perfectly through its carefully considered plot. As tightly controlled as it is, High and Low also has room for little glints of playful style, signs that a master is in command and he knows a slow, steady hand is required when the time comes to deploy the lightning-fast trick. High and Low may use an entirely different set of props than were required for most of Kurosawa’s best-known films, but it’s clearly the work of same beautifully skilled filmmaker.