天国と地獄 | High and Low (1963)
Exceeding all expectations and scoring high marks in all aspect of filmmaking, High and Low is definitely worthy of a place amongst Akira Kurosawa’s finest directorial efforts, for it is a masterly directed, ingeniously scripted & expertly executed example of its genre that approaches its subject matter in a thoroughly investigative fashion, and presents the esteemed filmmaker in absolute control of his craft.
The story follows a wealthy executive of a shoe company whose carefully devised scheme to gain control of his workplace from his greedy & profit-minded colleagues goes out the window when he becomes a victim of extortion. Having mortgaged his entire savings on his planned coup, he finds himself in a moral dilemma and contemplates whether to risk all that he owns by paying the ransom or put his other plan into action.
Directed by Akira Kurosawa, High and Low at first appears totally different from what it ultimately turns out to be, and is brilliantly steered by the master storyteller. Every move is carefully envisioned, every segment is illustrated in exhaustive detail, and every twist is cleverly placed within the narrative as Kurosawa takes an extremely calculative & methodical approach to bring his tale to life, and continues raising the stakes with each new information.
The screenplay is another gem, for the film packs an interesting set of characters, each with a well-defined arc, and gives them enough space to breathe. The first act acquaints the viewers with all the relevant people while establishing the morality of the wealthy executive. The middle act is an elaborate police procedure that’s carried out with such attention to detail that it’s as flawless as it is riveting. And the last act wraps it all up with a thrilling climax, followed by a stimulating final encounter just before the end credits.
There is rarely any instance when the film steps on the wrong foot, and Kurosawa even manages to highlight the social themes without deviating from the main plot. Be it the build-up, perfect pacing, smooth & controlled operation of camera, immaculate editing or the entire investigation process, every single aspect works in harmony with each other, and plays an important role in enriching the overall experience as they intensify the crucial moments, which in turn makes the drama much more immersive, engaging & impactful.
Also notable are the little details such as its application of colour to emphasise a key moment in what is a black & white movie, drawing on hot weather to add a sense of discomfort, employing different lighting to highlight the divide between the rich & poor, and use of Elvis Presley’s Now or Never during the climax amongst few other things, and they all add their own little flavours into the final print. It’s simple but smart storytelling and one that leaves little room for flaws. The final act, however, feels a bit stretched and could’ve used a slight trim in scenes just before the climax.
Coming to the performances, the cast consists of Toshirô Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyōko Kagawa, Isao Kimura, Kenjiro Ishiyama, Tsutomu Yamazaki & Takashi Shimura, with latter appearing in a cameo as Chief of Investigative Section. Mifune plays the wealthy executive who’s forced to make the difficult decision, and delivers a very restrained performance but it still carries an intensity that overshadows other people sharing the screen with him. Nakadai is in as Chief Detective Tokura, and his input is most compelling of all while the rest of the supporting cast play their part sincerely.
On an overall scale, High and Low is one of the best police procedural crime dramas I’ve ever seen, and is just as accomplished as Kurosawa’s best-known films. A work of pristine craftsmanship that finds its creator processing each & every element in the script before translating them on the film canvas, it is a gripping, entertaining & immensely satisfying cinema that unravels its mystery one step at a time, and only gets better as the plot progresses. An unexpected delight from beginning to end, High and Low is one of the greatest examples of its genre that I have no hesitation in recommending to every film lover out there.