Akira Kurosawa – High and Low (1963)

The subject is the influence of money on individual conscience and social integrity.

The structure is in two parts, the first static and set in the interior of a home in Yokohama, and concluded with a rapid sequence set on a train; the second, active.

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Akira Kurosawa: High and Low. From part one.

The first part presents the moral dilemma and ultimate decision of the wealthy man, a shoe company executive, in response to a kidnapping and a ransom demand. His decision ruins him financially but keeps him whole, in this regard, morally, and whose implementation is then presented in a remarkable set on a train. In this sequence, the kidnapper and the payer of the ransom, who have interacted only indirectly by telephone, now meet face to face for the first time, but at a distance, the ransom payer on the train, the kidnapper in a field the train passes by.

The second part presents, and reflects upon, the moral decisions of the kidnapper, whose receipt of the ransom monies is detected by the ransom payer in a short scene in which pink smoke is released—the only scene in the film that uses colour. The kidnapper’s moral decisions include arbitrary murders, and it is these, in the end, that lead police to him and to his arrest.

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Akira Kurosawa: High and Low. From part two.

There is a third context, though, of the amorality of a society that permits the wealthy to ignore and to pollute the habitat of the poor. In a long sequence in which the methods and analyses of the police are presented, it becomes clear that the police are the agents of what society deems to be right and what it deems to be punishable, namely crimes against individuals—any individual—whereas the crimes of the wealthy against the rest of society are not to be pursued.

This is overlaid with a sequence that shows American troops, who first came to occupy Japan through the port of Yokohama in 1945. The soldiers are clearly treated in a superior and deferential manner in the bars and clubs, and their carousing counterpoints a long sequence in which the kidnapper searches to acquire drugs to satisfy the ostensible demands of accomplices he thought had already been killed. Within these overlapping series, there is also a second meeting when the kidnapper sees the shoe executive on the street, in front of a shoe store, goes to him, asks for a light for his cigarette, receives it, and moves on. The kidnapper knows who the ransom payer is, but not vice versa.

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Akira Kurosawa: High and Low. From the conclusion.

In the end there is a third meeting of the kidnapper and the formerly wealthy man, in the prison in which the kidnapper is to be executed. It is their first and only face to face meeting, and they are separated by a screen of wire mesh. They remain separated, but it is the kidnapper alone who understands his opposite.

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