Imagine if you are a wealthy businessman whose kid gets kidnapped. Now imagine if the boy ended up being your driver’s instead of your own. Would you help your employee get his kid back or do you let him figure it out himself? In High and Low, Kurosawa explores this conundrum. This might seem like a straight forward narrative but never underestimate the master of cinema.
Gondo is a successful shoemaker. We first see him, he is in a meeting with a bunch of other shoe factory executives. They want him to join forces with them to take over the company and produce cheaper shoes at higher prices. He reacts violently against them. He dismisses them. It turns out he has been secretly buying stock to the company and now has a significant voice in board meetings. He prepares to take over the company and keep producing quality shoes when he receives a phone call. This phone call says that a kidnapper has their young son who had been cops and robbers with the driver’s son. He demands the sum that Gondo just secured to get control. We find out that it isn’t Gondo’s son that has been kidnapped, rather the driver’s son had been mistakenly stolen. But the kidnapper does not care about the mistake. He is going to keep the child until he sees the same ransom. Gondo is put in a precarious situation. Will he risk loosing his control and possibly his job in order to save this lower class boy? The father begs him to, the police assure him that he will get his money back and the only one encouraging him to not spend the money also works for someone else. He finally gives in and gives the ransom sealing his fate, or did he? The perspective now shifts to the kidnapper himself. The setting becomes less wide open and more cramped. We learn that the kidnapper isn’t really doing this out of any material means. instead he is doing it to embarrass Gondo, a man he envied while he looked up to him as he was growing up. He manipulates and controls the situations he puts other people in. He travels into the underworld of drugs and crime easily although he is a student. As the cops close in on the culprit, he becomes more and more deranged and vicious. The student is finally caught after he kills several junkies and ruins Gondo’s financial future.
Throughout this film, I thought it was going to go a certain way, only to be disoriented by having it switch. At the beginning of the film, I thought it was going to be a corporate intrigue movie, then it morphs into a child abduction movie, then a train thriller, then a character study and finally an exploration of addiction. In lesser hands, this would fall apart, but the Kurosawa knows better than most. He juggles these shifts and seamlessly integrates them to the point that you barely know it is happening until it already does. Mifune as Gondo also grounds the revolving structure and gives something to hold onto. Mifune practically disappears into Gondo to the point that I had to look up if that was actually him or not. He does and does not resemble his more stoic samurai roles of the past. He takes his propensity to overact and restricts it. Mifune makes this difficult role look easy. On the surface the character is a cold and calculating business man, only concerned about making money. The more you prod him, however, you see that he is actually a very idealistic and moral person. He is able to steadfastly refuse to give the kidnapper money one moment and the next moment let him have it without once feeling fake.
I dismissed this film after seeing it for the first time a couple of weeks ago. I found it entertaining but without any political merit that Kurosawa so subtly enters into most of his films. As I thought about the film, the more it grew on me. I now think this is one of his quiet masterpieces. It lacks the melodrama of a Rashomon and the historical importance of a Seven Samurai, but it is still worth checking out.