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High and Low: A Critique of Postwar Japan   (January 14, 2006)

This 1963 film by Akira Kurosawa, High and Low starring Toshiro Mifune as the executive about to make his big takeover move, and Tatsuya Nakadai as the afflicted medical intern who kidnaps his son, is a film classic for a number of reasons. Number one is the cast; I must have seen this movie at least 3 times, and only now did I recognize Nakadai as the kidnapper. Though often cast as a psychopath (Sword of Doom being the prime example), Nakadai shows an amazing emotional range in the final scene, a conversation between the hero Mifune and the psychopathic villain Nakadai. (Interestingly, Mifune was also the heroic samurai sensei in Sword of Doom.)

While High and Low is generally viewed as a morality play married to a police procedural, its most fascinating subtexts relate to Japanese postwar society. The "high and low" has at least four references: one, to the geography of the city, in which Mifune's mansion occupies the top of a prominent hill, while the criminal's hovel is in the lower-class flatlands; two, to the two protagonists' morals; three, to Mifune's ethical stance vis a vis his greedy colleagues, and four, to the Japanese society which created the highs and lows of social standing, twisted ethics and underclass resentment which fuel the story.

The Nakadai character has viewed Mifune's "house on the hill" for years, building a classist resentment against Mifune's wealth and status. This fundamentally social resentment is what fuels his brilliant kidnapping plan, not a personal enmity to Mifune's hard-charging but still highly ethical executive.

There is another subtle irony to this "high and low;" the Mifune character is a working-class guy who rose from shoemaker's apprentice to executive through hard work, attention to quality and pure drive. He simply doesn't deserve the resentment-fed tragedy which befalls him.

Several of the most compelling scenes occur when Nakadai seeks out a personal meeting with the executive whose life he has effectively ruined. In the first instance, Mifune stares plaintively into a shop window filled with womens's shoes. On the night of the kidnapping, he was about to wrest control of the shoe company to which he'd devoted his entire working life from money-grubbing executives who cared not for quality but only for a quick profit. Nakadai approaches Mifune and asks for a light. Nothing else transpires, but we experience the creepiness of the criminal interacting with his unknowing prey.

The irony of the scene is that Mifune was the ethical businessman, the lone stand-out for quality amidst a greed-driven coterie of other executives. If this isn't a statement on the business mores of postwar Japan, what is? Destroyed by the huge ransom demanded by Nakadai's character, Mifune has sunk to window-shopping to keep his conection to his craft--shoe-making--alive.

In the final scene, Nakadai has been apprehended and jailed; he awaits execution for the killing of the two junkies he manipulated into helping him with the kidnapping and ransom collection. He has requested a meeting with Mifune, to explain himself and to confess the raging resentment and madness at his core. Mifune is stoic; having lost everything, including his high-class house on the hill, he is starting over with a smaller shoe company.

It is a bleak yet powerful ending to a caustically social tragedy; a young man, full of promise as a medical intern, turns to kidnapping to destroy a wealthy man he envies from afar. In a truly 60s twist, the greedy, heartless executives win and Mifune loses, due to the intervention of a resentful lower-class person with a terribly heavy emotional burden.

The policemen's sympathy for Mifune is also an intriguing subtext; one states outright that though he typically has little sympathy for the wealthy, the fact that Mifune sacrificed his entire fortune to save the son of his lowly chauffeur has moved him deeply. Not to ruin the movie for you, but the plot twist occurs right on schedule at minute 20 (standard screenwriting technique calls for the first plot point at 20 minutes): the kidnapper thinks he has kidnapped the rich executive's son, but he has mistakenly taken the son'e playmate, the son of the lowly chauffeur. Mifune must then decide, in a classic morality play, whether to execute his takeover of the shoe company or save his underling's son. He chooses to sacrifice his fortune to save the innocent boy. As a feeling human being, he has no choice, and it is this realization which Mifune imparts so brilliantly.

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copyright © 2006 Charles Hugh Smith. All rights reserved in all media.

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