Sunday, September 12, 2010

High & Low [Akira Kurosawa]

Although Kurosawa is more known for his Samurai epics, he has made a number of contemporary films. Of these, High and Low is worked in the fashion of a crime thriller. The film is adapted from the novel King's Ransom by Ed McBain and was inspired by a series of high-profile kidnappings in Japan

A rich businessman, Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune), has mortgaged all his assets in a bid to take control of the shoe company in which he holds a stake. He is just about to send his right-hand man to catch a Tokyo flight to close the deal when a phone call informs him that his only son has been kidnapped for a huge ransom. But almost immediately it is discovered that his son is safe at home and the chauffeur's boy, who is a playmate to his son, has been erroneously picked up. The kidnapper realizes this but still insists that Gondo pay the ransom or have the blood of the chauffeur's child on his head.

The film focuses on Gondo's dilemma over paying a ransom that would surely ruin him and then the police's effort to track down the kidnapper. If this sounds somewhat familiar to Indian audiences it might be because of the “unofficial” Hindi remake Inkaar, directed by Raj Sippy and starring Shreeram Lagoo, Vinod Khanna and Amjad Khan.

High and Low's biggest strength is an exquisitely gripping screenplay, constructed with all the precision and polish of a good R.L. Stevenson yarn. The events of the plot unfold in a neat sequence, never flagging, and the film, even though mostly shot indoors, gives a sense of being in constant well-oiled motion. This is a textbook example of how to construct a story on screen.

Within the thriller format, Kurosawa puts up some interesting archetypes of a protocol and hierarchy-bound Japanese society. The chauffeur after realizing that his son has been kidnapped reminds the boss that his Man Friday needs to be driven to the airport. In the course of the investigation, whenever Gondo and his wife argue about paying the ransom, everyone else in the room looks away from he argument in a deliberately casual and unaware manner. The police investigations are presented as believable team-work as opposed to the lone heroic lawman stereotype that we're used to in other films. The character of the cold-blooded kidnapper is also quite nicely etched, his resentment of Gondo's prosperity symbolized by the "high" penthouse that looks down upon his "low" dwelling.

Toshiro Mifune does an excellent turn as Gondo and save for his characteristic guttural tone is utterly different from his other work in Kurosawa films. The rest of the cast, especially Tatsuya Nakadai as the utterly refined police inspector heading the investigation, provides able and ample support. Tsutomu Yamazaki as the villain does a fine job and is especially memorable in the last scene of the film where he confronts Gondo. The camerawork isn't in most part especially mobile or flashy but brilliantly uses the wide-screen (Toho)scope to capture the proceedings from the perspective of a theater stage, and helped by surgical editing, does a solid job of conveying the vitality of the screenplay.

Kurosawa's writing and direction speak volumes of his control over the film's content and format. High and Low may not be as famous as Seven Samurai or Yojimbo but is no less well made than these. A definite recommendation for the Kurosawa fan, the thriller fan or in general anyone who can appreciate a tightly made film.

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