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‘High and Low’

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 07, 1986


Akira Kurosawa
Toshiro Mifune;
Tatsuya Nakadai;
Tatsuya Mihashi;
Tsutomu Yamazaki;
Takashi Shimura
Not rated

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Based on Ed McBain's novel, "King's Ransom," "High and Low" illuminates its world with a wholeness and complexity you rarely see in film. As Akira Kurosawa weaves together character study, social commentary and police procedure, he combines what might have been a whole series of movies for another, lesser director. It's not one of his masterpieces, but "High and Low" fully illustrates why Kurosawa is regarded as Japan's foremost director.

First released in 1963 and now reissued in new 35mm prints with new subtitles, "High and Low" focuses on Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), a powerhouse executive in the Japanese shoe industry. In the midst of an attempt to take over his company, a proposition that throws him in hock down to his own furniture, he's hit by a huge ransom demand, with a twist -- the kidnaper (Tsutomu Yamazaki) takes, not his own son, but his chauffeur's.

Paying the ransom will ruin him financially; not paying it will ruin him as a human being. Gondo's anguish plays against the backdrop of financial intrigue and a more conventional police thriller, as Kurosawa delves into the cops' massive effort to track the kidnaper, led by the sensitive, but briskly ruthless, Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai).

As Gondo grapples with his choice, the movie acquires a mythic depth -- it's not unlike the story of Abraham, as Gondo is forced to decide between the life of an innocent and fealty to an abstract code. And at the same time, without ostentation, Kurosawa alludes to the more general dilemma of modern Japanese life -- the conflict between humane values and the rigid loyalties that have made for its commercial success.

"High and Low" is, in a way, the companion piece to "Throne of Blood" -- it's "Macbeth," if Macbeth had married better. The movie shares the rigors of Shakespeare's construction, the symbolic and historical sweep, the pacing that makes the story expand organically in the mind.

One aspect of Kurosawa's genius is the way he composes his tableaux to dramatic purpose. The struggle within Gondo's psyche is expressed physically, through the figures of Gondo's scheming corporate confederates, a 10-legged monster feeding on the bottom line, opposed visually to the meek chauffeur (Yutaka Sada), staring at his shoes, trying to hide behind the child's tiny sweater that he clutches in his hands. And the social themes that "High and Low" alludes to are made immediate with the simple image of Gondo's house on a hill above the sooty town below. (Kurosawa makes the same point with sound: The glass doors of Gondo's aerie seal out the industrial noise outside.)

As Gondo, Mifune reveals all the terrible rage of his ambition, but also an indestructible germ of compassion that lives inside him. And there's a marvelously poignant moment in which the ruined executive, taking a stroll at night, stops in front of a shoe store window to peruse the merchandise. In that moment, which Kurosawa has the good taste not to underline, you see how money, position and power aren't everything for Gondo -- in the end, the guy just loves shoes.

Nakadai glides through "High and Low" in narrow-lapeled G-man suits, suave, imperturbable and crisply decisive. And the supporting cast is uniformly fine, particularly Tatsuya Mihashi as an unctuous, double-talking aide and Kenjiro Ishiyama as a bluff, bald-headed detective whom Kurosawa deftly employs for comic relief.

"High and Low" has its faults. The opening exposition, which takes place entirely in Gondo's home, is overly static, and the immersion in forensics throughout the denouement, while intriguing, goes rather deeper into police methods than it's worth. And the movie could use more of composer Masaru Sato's glossy, film noir score.

But these are mere quibbles compared with the experience of watching a movie where every scene, every sequence, every shot are alive with confidence in the medium. Your complaints dissolve in the backwash of pure film pleasure, as you're introduced once again to the master.

"High and Low" is unrated and contains some violence.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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