Heaven and Hell, High and Low – Akira Kurosawa’s Masterpiece of Suspense

While starting a film when you can feel yourself dozing off isn’t the best idea, it does wind up giving whichever film you’re watching a pretty good challenge. After all, if it keeps you awake, it must be pretty good. It’s not always the fairest of challenges, I don’t recommend you try it with a Tarkovsky or Ozu film or anything that really requires much patience. But when it comes to suspense thrillers, what better challenge could there be? Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 thriller High & Low was the last film I gave that challenge and it passed.

I’d just finished a long day at work, the seats in the cinema were way too comfortable for my own good and I could feel myself slipping. The first few minutes of the film aren’t bad, mind you, they’re just expositional. Toshiro Mifune plays an executive at a large shoe company and he’s angling for power. We learn that for the past few years he’s been playing a chess match, secretly buying up shares until he finally has the majority. He’s mortgaged his house, he’s put everything he owns up as collateral, he’s got it in the bag. He can’t lose. It’s as thrilling as talk of underhanded corporate dealings can be, and that’s not sarcasm, it’s great, it’s just not enough to keep me awake. But then the phone rings.

Mifune’s son’s been kidnapped and the ransom is thirty million yen. I’m wide awake. Not only is that enough to checkmate any corporate chess matches he’s got going, it’s enough to bankrupt him. There’s not much more I’m going to say about the plot of the film, as it’s so full of enough twists and turns that it’s worth going in blind. It’s one of the best suspense thrillers ever made, definitely the best film about a kidnapping I’ve ever seen.

Akira Kurosawa is no doubt one of the most legendary and influential filmmakers of all time, with everyone from Sam Peckinpah to Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet to George Lucas, all praising him and citing his influence. With the often imitated Seven Samurai and Yojimbo under his belt, he’s understandably most well-known for his samurai films. But more than just a master of the action film, Kurosawa seemed to make anything work no matter what genre, style or story. Shakespeare adaptation, got it. Humanistic drama, got it. Film Noir gangster flick, got it. High stakes suspense thriller, got it.

Even though High & Low runs for a total of almost two and a half hours, as soon as it’s got the ball rolling it never lets up. It doesn’t take long for the police to get involved, led by the effortlessly cool and collected detective played by Tatsuya Nakadai, and when they do the film becomes an edge-of-your-seat thriller. For the first hour or so, the film barely leaves Toshiro Mifune’s living room. That’s a little under half of the film dedicated solely to the police and the man with the ransom to pay hiding from and contending with the kidnapper on the phone who’s watching through their window from who knows where.

The screenplay is impeccably well crafted and any screenwriters would be well served by watching High & Low closely and then one more time. From the set-up, to the turning points, to the action sequences, characters, themes, motivations and conclusion, it’s all pitch perfect. Adapted from a book by Western writer Ed McBain, it’s one of the best examples of Kurosawa’s keen ability to recontextualize Western works. It’s almost absurd, in a way, that Kurosawa’s own films like Seven Samurai and Yojimbo while widely imitated with Western remakes like The Magnificent Seven and A Fistful of Dollars were themselves heavily inspired by the films of John Ford, the hardboiled fiction of Dashiell Hammett and of course William Shakespeare.

High & Low doesn’t break much ground, it doesn’t revolutionize the genre or anything like that, instead it stands as one of the most solid examples of the genre ever made. It’s a rare film purely in that it’s a completely wholly satisfying experience. It knows what its genre’s conventions are and what the audience wants from it and so it delivers. It’s one of Kurosawa’s best and the Blu-Ray well deserves a place on your shelf.

Written by Tom May
Tom May is a Melbourne based writer, filmmaker and columnist with a vast knowledge of film, BBQ and Paul Thomas Anderson.