Kurosawa’s High and Low starts with a low. The board members of a shoe company are trying to convince Mr. Gondo, another board member, to adopt a design of ladies shoe that is less durable but more profitable. They are also trying to convince him to oust the president with their combined shares in the company. Mr. Gondo rejects both their suggestions and asks them to get out. The low here is the ugly face of capitalism, shamelessly naked in the hilltop mansion of Mr. Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), that is concerned only about profit making. Mr. Gondo in this situation comes out to be a principled man. In an outburst, he tears apart the new design and throws it on the table before asking other members to leave. But he has a secret plan of his own to buy the controlling stake in the company. He has already arranged the first installment by mortgaging everything he owns including his house. His assistant is about to leave to make the payment.
But this is a thriller, right. At this moment, Mr. Gondo receives a phone call that his son is kidnapped and a ransom of 30 million is demanded by the kidnapper. After a few moments, it becomes clear that actually his chauffeur’s son is kidnapped by mistake. Now circumstance has changed. Mr. Gondo who was willing to give anything to the kidnappers for his son is now reluctant to give the money for his driver’s son and calls the police.
The first half of the film is shot entirely in Mr. Gondo’s house that is on a hill. In this part, the whole concern of everybody including the policemen is to get the child back and they get him back after paying the ransom. The entire second half of the film is how the money is recovered and the kidnapper is caught. There is a display of excellent police work. It may seem today, with all the technology available to aid, that catching the kidnapper was simple. But trust me it was not at that time.
It is no doubt one of the best thrillers ever made. Despite its simplistic storyline, it is very complex and demands churning of viewer’s psychology and beliefs. Kurosawa has presented a class struggle through this brilliant thriller. Mr. Gondo became the target merely because he was wealthy and upper class. His palatial house being on a hill is the prime motivation for the crimes that have been committed. The kidnapper bizarrely asks him to pay more than he has earned in his lifetime for the son of his driver and he is quite sure that he would pay because in his own words Mr. Gondo doesn’t have the guts to let the child die. It is clear from the phone calls that this kidnapper not just wants all the money that Mr. Gondo has got but he also wants to humiliate him. Was this about guts? Was Mr. Gondo showing his weakness by agreeing to pay? Was it his fault that he was rich? Kurosawa provides these answers but in a skewed way. This is a thriller but also essentially a commentary on contemporary Japanese society. After watching this film one thing is certain that this is a Socialist Thriller. The kidnapper, who was projected as a mad monster in the first half, comes out to be a common man, a common lower class man who loathes Gondo just because he is wealthy. I am not in a position to comment upon Kurosawa’s intention but very cleverly without glorifying or justifying the criminal, he induces sympathy in the viewers for him. Just a simple thought that this man is a common poor man changes the psychology. Was it Kurosawa’s experiment on his viewers? I don’t know. This film is originally based on American writer, Ed Mc Bain’s novel King’s Ransom.
There are more questions that are raised and answered here. The police did a fine job, in fact, an excellent job in catching the kidnapper and recovering almost all the money. But what should be the motivation for the police to do their job, Vengeance or allegiance to their duty? In this film, they are driven more by the thought of getting vengeance for Mr. Gondo. They literally sweat out to get the money back for this man. Kurosawa, in a small symbolic scene, has also presented the impact of America and its arms culture on Japanese people. In the starting scene, the two playing kids are dressed as cowboy and sheriff and indulge in a gun battle.
With the performances, I can comfortably say that Toshiro Mifune is undoubtedly one of the world’s best actors. He portrays the transformation from a strong and shrewd businessman to a vulnerable man, very effectively and it seems like a cakewalk for him. Other actors are equally natural.
High and Low is not counted as one of the world’s greatest, even in Kurosawa’s works it comes at a lower rank after Rashomon, Seven Samurai, Red Beard and Ran. But in my opinion, in the world’s greatest films of all time, it has its own place. The greatness of this film is in the fact that the required urgent-ness, the thrill is always there but you do not feel at any instance that something extraordinary is taking place. Kurosawa never lets you forget the meaning of the title and its importance and relevance throughout the long duration of the film. The High and Low is present in every single frame. With the profound climax scene that involves a conversation between Mr. Gondo and the captured kidnapper, the film ends with a High.