1963, Movies

High and Low aka 天国と地獄 [Tengoku to jigoku] (1963, Akira Kurosawa)

This is a startlingly original kidnapping film, which bucks film conventions of the day – of any day, really. I suspect it might have been a little shocking, both in its form and its somewhat taboo inclusion of heroin addiction as a subplot.


The film’s opening credits are scored for film noir, but this is not a film noir. So from the very first moment, our expectations are set up to be knocked down.

What we might call the first act takes place entirely in Mifune’s character’s house, and almost entirely in one room. It feels like a play – the blocking in particular feels like a play – and the lack of any music makes that impression all the stronger.

And then, when Mifune’s character sets out to pay the ransom, the film changes entirely. First, there is a kinetic ransom delivery sequence, certainly one of the more lively ones of its era. (Even if they never do address why you cannot phone out from the train.) It’s a mini train film within the film.

Then, the film transforms into an elaborate police procedural, with extreme detail as to how police would actually have to try to solve a crime like this in the early ’60s. Unlike a Hollywood film, the movie doesn’t focus on a few cops exactly, there are, instead, numerous police involved (like there might be for this type of crime in real life). The score in this part comes in arbitrarily and there is sudden music in scene on a couple of occasions.

Then, there is the heroin. Can you imagine an American movie from this era, featuring the biggest stars in their country, no less, with heroin as a plot point?

Yes, the film is dated by the acting – which is typical of a Japanese film of the day – and there are a couple of plot holes. But it’s an extremely original approach to what might otherwise be a pretty rote kidnapping plot.

Really, really cool.


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