High and Low

Here’s another oldie: a program note about a Kurosawa classic, written in 1981 for a University of Washington film series – thus readers are assumed to have just watched the movie. High and Low turns up on my Ten Best of 1963 list, too. – Robert Horton

Cinema is a window, a window through which we are privileged to watch people and things as they move and break and dance and die. The window can be maneuvered gracefully around people, so that we can observe things from swirling, unbroken flight—as in the way a film director like Max Ophuls made movies. The window might change its perspective many times in a few seconds, showing us different sides of images from angles we didn’t even know existed, to the point where we may wonder if the barriers are gone and we’re now surrounded by the action—as in the way Sam Peckinpah makes many of his sequences. The window may also resolutely sit and watch, unmoving but fascinated by the dynamism within the frame, as people come and go and perform—as in the way Charlie Chaplin made movies.

Akira Kurosawa can do it all, and so, for that matter, can the three guys named above. It’s a pleasure to watch someone manipulate a frame (particularly a CinemaScope—make that TohoScope—frame) the way Kurosawa does; he knows that the decision about what to include and exclude from a frame may be the most important in a film. He takes pride in the window. He also knows, good director that he is, that by the end of a movie the audience should come to know that what they have been witnessing is not only a window; it is also, unavoidably, a mirror.

Kurosawa’s High and Low begins with an unusually seedy and ugly credits sequence; but after the first smoke-filled images of metropolis, we begin the narrative proper with a window; through this window, that same metropolis is still visible. A man moves across the window—it’s dark in the room, and since the only light is entering from the window, behind the man, we can’t clearly make him out. He crosses the room, the camera panning to accommodate, and flicks on a light. Okay, let the action begin.

And begin it does: immediately we’re dropped into a world of corporate scheming and personal back-biting. The fellow who at the nerve center of the shifting frames is Gondo (Toshiro Mifune); this guy is so self-possessed and confident (we won’t know all of the Why for that yet, but will soon be let in on it) that he controls this confrontation even when he’s not saying anything. He’s a man who can keep his cool, even if he is just a tad callous to his chauffeur, a bit cruel to his wife, and perhaps not too interested in his little boy (though they both “like violent games,” as his wife says). Looks like we’re heading into the country of Kurosawa’s The Bad Sleep Well here—industrial hanky-panky, with perhaps a fable of a simple idealist who just wants to make a good pair of shoes. All right, we know from that earlier film that Kurosawa can imbue very personal and cinematically/emotionally justified anguish into even a story top-heavy with social comment, so no problem.

Then the world is broken in two. It’s just a phone call, but few phone calls in the history of cinema can match this lightning-bolt moment. Kurosawa’s cutting and composition in this sequence is just about flawless; the editing is disturbingly jagged and the people, huddled in desperation around a telephone receiver, seem to be falling out of the frame in their panic. Things will never be the same from this point on; lives will be irrevocably altered (some will end) and even the fact that the criminal on the other end of the line has made a clumsy mistake in identification will not remedy that. Thus it’s entirely necessary that Kurosawa bombard us with his editing prowess at this point; in fact, the first ten minutes or so of the film, with rhythmic cutting and pleasing compositions, have been building up for this rupture.

Kurosawa’s ability as an editor will come as a surprise to no one; but let me just pluck one example from High and Low to demonstrate why his reputation is so well-earned. Continue reading