Gwenesday Movie Night: High and Low (1963)

Did you know, Mr. Gondo, that it is only extortion if you threaten a person or his kin?”


This March, most film-buffs were talking about the Oscars, (check out our coverage on pg. 24,) but for cinephiles looking to scratch a less contemporary itch, there is something right here at Capilano University. Free weekly screenings in the Bosa Theatre cater to a wide variety of tastes. Recent offerings include Joe Talbot’s The Last Black Man in San Francisco, and John Carpenter’s contained horror thriller, The Thing. This week I sat down to watch Akira Kurosawa’s acclaimed mystery crime drama, High and Low. 

High and Low follows Kingo Gondo, played by Toshirô Mifune, a high ranking executive at a Japanese shoe company. After business disagreements boil over, Gondo makes a deal to quietly acquire a majority of National Shoes, mortgaging everything he owns in the process. Everything is set for his takeover when Gondo receives a phone call at home. His son has been kidnapped, and the captor demands 30 million yen in return for the boy’s life. Gondo scrambles to put together the money when his son Jun enters the scene, safe and sound. His relief doesn’t last long. Gondo’s chauffeur, Aoki, enters the room, asking if anyone has seen his son, Shinichi.

The kidnapper has made a mistake, but now Gondo must make a choice. Saving the chauffeur’s son will ruin him financially, but what responsibility does he bear, when he was so ready to make the same sacrifice for his own child? What follows is a taught thriller brimming with tension, mystery and themes of morality and class that will keep you at rapt attention from its opening credits to its final frame. 

The screenwriters (Akira Kurosawa, Ryūzō Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Eijirô Hisaita) know just what information to reveal and when, so that the viewer can guess at what will happen without ever really knowing for sure. Once the film gets you in its grip, it doesn’t let go.

Kurosawa is a prolific Japanese filmmaker, whose career spans from the 1940s to the 1990s. He is perhaps more well known for his films Seven Samurai (1954) and Rashomon (1950), but High and Low is a masterful film which shows Kurosawa’s command of the camera, and his immaculate attention to composition and editing. 

The first act of High and Low is contained to Gondo’s high rise apartment, overlooking the city of Yokohama. Unable to leave under the watchful eye of the kidnapper, the characters grapple with impossible choices, and so does the audience. 

Minimal editing, a fairly impersonal lens and blocking that could tell the whole story without a word allow for full immersion in the story. Mifune delivers an incredible performance, allowing the audience in, as his facade of power cracks and crumbles. I was also struck by Kyōko Kagawa’s performance as Gondo’s wife Reiko. She serves as the film’s moral compass, and her shaming, despairing eye pierces each scene she is in.

The second act begins with a sequence on a train, where the tension reaches its peak. A kinetic camera and editing style, unseen to this point in the film, evoke the anxiety oozing out of the characters.

The pacing drags a bit in the second half, and I began to feel the runtime. The police procedural is interesting, but one gets the idea that the audience isn’t trusted quite so much as in the beginning of the film. Once the final act began, though, with a sting throughout the crowded city told almost entirely without dialogue, I was hooked again. The final minutes pay off all of what has been planted throughout, and the final scene will have you thinking for days afterward.

High and Low is a classic for a reason. The film shows what a crime drama can be at its very best, with stellar cinematography, performances, and a screenplay that keeps you asking questions. Questions about what will happen next, and questions about how we define right and wrong. High and Low is engaging on an artistic and thematic level, and elicits anger, fear, relief, sadness, disgust and sympathy. That is all I can ever really ask of a film.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *