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Film / High and Low (1963)

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Tengoku to Jigoku (English Title: High and Lownote ) is a 1963 film directed by Akira Kurosawa and starring Toshiro Mifune and Tatsuya Nakadai, based on King's Ransom, an 87th Precinct novel by Ed McBain.

Kingo Gondo (Mifune) is a wealthy executive (the factory manager) for National Shoes. He's caught in a power struggle between a trio of directors who want to wrest control from the company's president, and the autocratic president himself. Behind the scenes, he's arranged a leveraged buyout that will give him control of the company so that he can run it his way. Just as he's committed himself to this course of action, mortgaging everything he has, Gondo is informed that his child Jun has been kidnapped, and the kidnapper demands a ludicrously high ransom.

Gondo is prepared to pay even if it ruins him, but then learns that his son is safe. Instead, the kidnapper has accidentally taken Shinichi, the son of Gondo's chauffeur. Gondo must now struggle with the moral dilemma of either bankrupting himself for another man's child...or letting the child die at the hands of the kidnapper.

While Gondo suffers from this dilemma, and the results of his decision, the police, led by Chief Detective Tokura (Nakadai) attempt to match wits with the kidnapper and bring him to justice.

Do not confuse with the High&Low franchise by EXILE TRIBE, also Japanese made.

This film provides examples of:

  • Accidental Kidnapping: The kidnapper gets confused and winds up taking the chauffeur's son instead of Gondo's, since Shinichi and Jun exchange clothing when swapping their role as Sheriff and Outlaw.
  • Adaptation Title Change: High and Low is based on the novel King's Ransom.
  • Big Bad: Ginjiro Takeuchi, the mastermind of Shinichi's kidnapping.
  • The Big Board: The cops in Yokohama have a large map of the city that they use in an effort to puzzle out where the kidnapper called from.
  • Big Fancy House: Gondo's large modern house with the amazing view at the top of the hill ("High") overlooking the city ("Low"). The first half is set entirely within that house.
  • Black-and-Gray Morality: Kingo Gondo is a cunning businessman who is willing to use underhanded tactics to see his vision of the company made and is genuinely hesitant to ruin his own life to save his chauffeur's son, but he is respected by most of those who work for him and ultimately does the right thing. The kidnapper is a resentful madman who is willing to kill a child that has nothing to do with his vendetta and kill off his own henchmen so he can have all the money.
  • Chekhov's Skill: Gondo's youth as a cobbler's apprentice comes in handy when the police need to hide some capsules in the briefcases that burn with bright pink smoke or let out a horrible smell if they get wet.
  • Corrupt Corporate Executive: The three directors want to take over National Shoes so that they can make gaudy but shoddy products at a high profit, assuming their customers will be easily fooled by advertising. The "Old Man", who is never seen, does not appear to be corrupt and favors making long-lasting shoes, but is autocratic and behind the times — the three directors derisively refer to the women's shoes he prefers to make as "army shoes", i.e. ugly but reliable, reducing the amount of money they can make from each customer.
  • Cowboys and Indians: Jun and Shinichi play "Sheriff and Outlaw", then switch roles and outfits; this leads to the wrong boy being kidnapped.
  • Dramatic Irony: Takeuchi believes that he's striking a deserved blow against an uppity, privileged rich man who has always looked down (literally) on the poor of the slum district below. Except that Gondo himself came up from those same slums, and Takeuchi himself ultimately preys on the most downtrodden in society (the heroin addicts) to achieve his goals.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: Gondo's plan to take over National Shoes fails, and he loses all his possessions when his creditors call in his loan. But he gets the cash back when the kidnapper is finally caught, and he gets a chance to start over again with a smaller shoe company where he has more control than he had at National Shoes.
  • Evil Counterpart: The kidnapper to Gondo, as both have backgrounds from the urban slums, and from which Gondo worked his way up from the bottom to reach the professional class, while the kidnapper might have had a chance to potentially work to becoming a medical professional but threw away his life committing the crimes.
  • Evil Plan: The kidnapper has a pretty basic one: Abduct an executive's son and demand ransom. He accidentally kidnaps one of the kid's friends instead.
  • Face–Heel Turn: Gondo's secretary Kawanishi defects to the side of the directors; he tries to disguise this as a Heel–Face Turn, but Gondo easily sees through it. He justifies his actions by telling Gondo that his actions in agreeing to the ransom demand would have caused his downfall and ejection from National Shoes, destroying Kawanishi's life in the process as well. He later brings an offer from the National Shoes director to rehire Gondo in a powerless role, where at least Gondo would have an income and might be able to come to an agreement with his creditors. He once again acts as if this is a Heel–Face Turn, explaining that it as a result of his long loyalty to Gondo and how he had risked his own job to get the directors to agree to this offer. Gondo angrily refuses and orders him to leave..
  • Film of the Book: Based on the novel King's Ransom by Ed McBain (pen name of Evan Hunter).
  • Four Eyes, Zero Soul: Takeuchi's Opaque Lenses while he follows a heroin addict to use as a murder guinea pig convey his lack of humanity.
  • Freudian Excuse: It's hinted that the kidnapper's life has been hellish, including whatever gave him that nasty scar. He offhandedly mentions his mother died a year before, which may have been what sent him over the edge into murder. However, he refuses to tell Gondo any more about his life lest he incur his pity.
  • Get Out!: After public opinion turned in Gondo's favor after the kidnapping and his paying the ransom, while turning against National Shoes when they fired him, Kawanishi, now working as a director at National Shoes, comes by to offer Gondo the chance to come back as an executive without any actual power, giving him a chance to earn a salary again and hopefully allow him to cut a deal with his creditors. Gondo will have none of it, and orders Kawanishi to get out.
  • Grass is Greener: Why the kidnapper did what he did. He was a poor medical student who lived in a hovel gazing up at Gondo's fancy house at the top of the hill and directed all his rage towards him, seeing him as a symbol and representative of the class structure.
  • Guilt Complex: Aoki blames himself for Gondo not only having to spend his own fortune to get Shinichi back, but also for the fact Gondo's life took a downturn after the kidnapping, so he pushes his son to try and remember all he can so the police will be able to catch the kidnappers. Gondo gently reproaches him for shouting at his son to try to get him to remember something useful, and then the detectives angrily reproach him for trying to find the house Shinichi was being held in without any police backup.
  • Honest Corporate Executive: Gondo, while engaging in some sneaky dealings, wants to produce good quality and stylish shoes at a reasonable price as this will produce more profits in the long run. His own employees note that while Gondo might be stern and even a stickler, he was always fair and respectful and never asked them to do stuff he wouldn't do. The dilemma for Gondo in the first half, when the kidnapper took the wrong kid Shinichi, is whether he is willing to sacrifice his life savings and fortune for someone who is not his own child, and indeed the son of one of his servant's. The movie goes out of its way to engineer a worst case scenario for Gendo — while he would otherwise be able to raise the money by taking out a loan, he is already mortgaged to the hilt in his attempt to buy stock ownership of the company he works for. Gondo ultimately does do the moral thing, but only after hesitating for a long time and after insisting several times that he couldn't sacrifice his wife and son's futures and possibly force them onto the street in the hope that the kidnapper would keep his word and the police would eventually be able to trace the money. The police are moved by his moral gesture, with one cop noting that it's almost enough to change his opinion about businessmen, at least until Gondo's bosses prove how exceptional and rare a thing this is.
  • Hyperlink Story: The second half of the film is a drama without main characters largely following the cops as they investigate the kidnapper, it also switches by following the kidnapper, a brief episode where Shinichi's father tries to act like a hero and investigate on his own, and showing the fallout of the media publicity of Gondo's actions. The height of this is when both the kidnapper, currently being closely followed by the police, spots Gondo who is examining some womens' shoes in a storefront window. Eager to meet the man he has robbed, the kidnapper throws away his cigarette, puts a new one in his mouth, walks over to Gondo, and asks him for a light, which is obliges. He then watches Gondo leaving before catching a taxi to the hideout. Watching all this, the cops can't believe the bizarre incident.
  • Make It Look Like an Accident: The kidnapper uses two heroin junkies as his partners in crime. He then murders them with heroin overdoses by deliberately giving them 95% pure heroin.
  • Meaningful Name: The powerful lead who seeks to gain ownership of a company is named KINGo.
  • Morality Chain: Gondo's wife Reiko, at first, and later his son Jun.
  • Phone-Trace Race: The police try to trace the phone calls, to no avail.
  • Police Procedural: Particularly in the second part of the film, although the first half has plenty of police-related scheming.
  • Precision F-Strike: When describing his meeting with the executives at National Shoes, Bos'n stands up angrily and says of them, "What a bunch of assholes."
  • Ransom Drop: As per the kidnapper's meticulous instructions, the ransom for Aoki's son has to be dropped off from a fast-moving train. The kidnapper specifically states that the briefcases can't be any wider than 2.5 inches or otherwise they wouldn't fit through the gap in the window of the train's toilet, which is the only window in the train that opens to any degree.
  • Reasonable Authority Figure: Tokura, the chief detective in charge of the case. He never pushes Gondo to pay the ransom, merely asking him to tell the kidnapper he's willing to pay, he tries to calm Aoki down when he pushes his son to remember what happened (see Guilt Complex above), and assures Shinichi he's helped a lot. On the DVD commentary, it's said Kurosawa told Tatsuya Nakadai to base his performance on the work of Henry Fonda, who played such figures late in his career (specifically his performance in 12 Angry Men).
  • Scary Shiny Glasses: The kidnapper's sunglasses always manage to have bright light reflecting in them.
  • Self-Made Man: Gondo worked his way up from cobbler's apprentice to the position he now occupies, though his marriage to Reiko did give him much more wealth to work with. (And note that this kind of upward social mobility would have been extremely rare in Japan at the time, making Gondo's moral dilemma even more harrowing.) The fact that he was a leather worker implies that he was not simply poor, but a Burakumin, making his success even more extraordinary.
  • Shoddy Knockoff Product: At the beginning of the movie, Gondo is being convinced to support three directors who are attempting to take over National Shoes, who argue that the company can only survive by making more glamorous shoes that will fall apart faster, driving further sales. He argues for a middle route: better looking shoes than those they currently produce, but at a high level of quality.
  • Splash of Color: A plume of pink smoke when the kidnapper disposes of evidence appears in color.
  • True Craftsman: Gondo cares about making quality shoes and takes offense when more ethically challenged executives at National Shoes suggest making a deliberately shoddy product.
  • Two-Act Structure: The film is divided between "high" and "low" (or, in the original Japanese, "heaven" and "hell"). The first half of the film involves the kidnapping and Ransom Drop and is entirely set within Gondo's Big Fancy House on the top of a hill. The second half of the movie largely leaves Gondo behind and follows the meticulous police investigation through the city's lower-depths that eventually tracks down the kidnapper.
  • Villainous Breakdown: Takeuchi breaks down sobbing and tries to swallow a block of pure heroin when he is finally caught. Later, his brave front when he faces Gondo in prison winds up dissolving into trembling and hysterical screaming.
  • Yamato Nadeshiko: Reiko, the supportive wife who never speaks above her station but pleads with Gondo to do the right thing and ultimately convinces him to turn in his fortune.

Alternative Title(s): High And Low