High and Low

Japanese cinema has always been an interest of mine, going back to when, as a child, I watched Japanese monster movies on Saturday afternoon TV. My tastes have evolved over the years. I recently saw a film by Akira Kurosawa, High and Low (1963). It tells the story of a wealthy businessman, Kingo Gondo (Toshirō Mifune), who is looking to seize control of a shoe company from the other stockholders. Suddenly he receives a phone call from someone who says he has kidnapped Gondo’s son. Gondo tells him he will pay the ransom, even though it means giving up the money he needs to buy out his enemies in the company, and he will be forced out of the company and into poverty. He subsequently learns that the kidnapper took the son of his chauffeur by mistake. Gondo then begins to waffle about paying the money. Only after pleadings from his wife, Reiko (Kyōko Kagawa) and from his chauffeur does he relent and pay the money. The rest of the film is mostly taken up with the police search for the kidnapper.

What makes High and Low interesting is its portrayal of class dynamics in Japanese society. Gondo has worked his way up from the factory floor in his company, and he takes pride in its product. He finds himself at odds with the other shareholders in the company, who don’t have his background working in production. Their desire to increase profits by making shoddily-constructed shoes offends Gondo’s sense of craftsmanship and pride in his work. Later, when these shareholders learn of Gondo’s predicament, they show no sympathy for him whatsoever. Instead, they openly relish the fact that they will now be able to push him out of the company, much to the disgust of the police detective who interviews them. When Gondo’s wife, Reiko, urges him to pay the ransom money, he contemptuously tells her that, being from a rich family, she has no idea what it’s like to be poor. Gondo’s chauffeur behaves in a craven manner towards him, even though Gondo lets his son play with his own.

The kidnapper is motivated by jealousy. He lives in poverty while he can see Gondo’s sumptuous house on a hill. (In one scene, a policeman comments on how the house seems to look down on the poorer city below.) It is this which motivates his crime, but ironically he kidnaps the chauffeur’s son instead. The kidnapper is portrayed as cruel and pitiless, nevertheless his anger is real. In the film’s final scene, he tells Gondo how much the sight of his house tormented him, a rebuke to Gondo’s vanity in buying the place. He then impotently claws at the glass dividing him from Gondo. He might as well be clawing at the economic system that separates them.

I’ve always known that Kurosawa was a pacifist. However, watching this film makes me think that perhaps his politics were more left-wing than I previously realized. I feel motivated to re-watch the other Kurosawa films that I’ve seen.

One Response to “High and Low”

  1. Darren Says:

    That looks like a fascinating film. I’ll look out for it.

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