Criterion: High and Low (****) Parasite from the age of the morality play

Amazon.com: High and Low (The Criterion Collection): Toshirô ...
High and Low – 1963

Director Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay Akira Kurosawa, Ryūzō Kikushima, Hideo Oguni, Eijiro Hisaita
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyōko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Yutaka Sada, Kenjiro Ishiyama, Takashi Shimura

The 50’s and 60’s had a significant call in the entertainment field, particularly in plays. The end of WWII brought a prosperity with those young enough to enjoy it, but old enough to remember the spoils of war. From this environment much of Kurosawa’s work sprang forth.

This time around, the story centers around the worth of a human child. A shoe making executive, Gondo (Mifune) is on the verge of using his wealth to overtake less scrupulous executives. Just before he can make the deal, he is informed that his child has been kidnapped, and there is a significant ransom.

Immediately, Gondo decides he will use the money for the ransom. This would render his fortune sacrificed and he would be broke. Before he actually hands over the money, he and his group find that it is not his boy, but the child of his driver that is kidnapped.

From here, the film takes on a deeper resonance. Should Gondo sacrifice his fortune when the child is not his own?

Other filmmakers might leave the story right here, but Kurosawa has the child returned before the halfway point. At this point we see the dual story of the ramifications on Gondo and the investigation and search for the kidnapper. Due to Kurosawa’s deft storytelling skill, the story actually gains momentum.

From here, the story emphasis turns to the police investigation. Kurosawa alternates expositional discussions with field work as Nakadai and Shimura lead a team of investigators on a quest to catch the kidnapper and get some measure of solace for Gondo. Of these, Ishiyama is delightful at portraying a gritty but humorous senior officer.

The film loses some effectiveness in the lack of mystery. The officers every step unfolds a new twist until it quickly becomes clear who did it and how they catch him.

The film looks great overall. The director’s master of wide screen is such an art by this point that it feels like an entirely different story is being told for long, wordless passages. There are some acute observations of Japan in the 1960s that feel like journalism as much as storytelling.

Overall, the film is an entertaining combination of a moral story and police procedural.

(**** out of *****)

*Side note on Shimura. It’s astounding the amount of screentime for the veteran actor, Kurosawa uses him as not much more than window dressing. For one who had very recently been at the top of his game, the director uses him like he lost confidence in something. Much of Ishiyama’s performance feels like something out of the Shimura playbook.

Shimura, seen below in another film, is such a great actor that it feels a waste to not give him something more. His is as much a generational talent as Mifune. The feeling is the start of a setting sun.

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