At 143 minutes, finding time for High and Low has been difficult, and after watching The Bad Sleep Well a while ago and finding myself bored to tears and perpetually confused, I was reluctant to watch High and Low.
Today I decided to devote my afternoon to High and Low. The film is set in 1960s Japan, and longtime Kurosawa collaborator Toshiro Mifune plays Kingo Gondo, a footwear magnate on the cusp of taking over his company, National Shoes. When he gets a call that his son has been kidnapped and the abductor demands 30 million yen, Gondo's plan to assume control of the company is scuttled.
Ah, but his son is fine — the kidnapper took the boy's friend by mistake. So now Gondo has a choice, sort of: pay the ransom and save the child, even if the child isn't his own, or ignore the kidnapper's demands and let the boy die (and face the PR fallout when such a story goes public).
I'm watering down the plot a bit here, but suffice to say the film pits rich against poor, those who live high on a hill vs. those who live in a squalid valley below, or those who maintain moral high ground vs. the purely immoral. In ways both literal and symbolic, Mifune's character struggles to maintain that high ground throughout the film, and the film examines the cost of doing the right thing.
Part mystery, part police procedural, and part family drama, High and Low is a deeply satisfying film worth spending an afternoon to enjoy. While watching, I noted several moments in the police procedure that Hollywood films have since appropriated. For example, recording phone calls and analyzing background noise is a device most famously used in The Fugitive, but Hollywood has beaten to death many times.
The comparisons and contrasts with The Fugitive don't end there. You've got the kidnapper working in a hospital (rather than the protagonist). The kidnapper has both arms, sure, but he has a prominent scar on his left hand denoting some limb injury that is never explained. The police investigation is headed by a relentless detective (rather than a relentless federal marshal) whose experience and tenacity comes in handy many times as they track down the kidnapper and bring him to justice. The kidnapper is involved with drugs; the villains in The Fugitive are involved with a pharmaceutical scam.
Rather than convicted murderers riding a train to prison, it is Gondo and the detectives who ride a train to a predetermined point where they must throw out the ransom — thereby assuring Gondo of a "life sentence of debt" as the relentless detective puts it.
The connections to The Fugitive are pretty consistent throughout. Whether Kurosawa directly influenced David Twohy and Jeb Stuart when they were developing the script for The Fugitive is unclear. Still, the mere fact that these two films can exist 30 years apart and have so many connections speaks to the enduring power and influence of Kurosawa's work. Or maybe I just watch too many movies.
Much has been written about Kurosawa's influence on George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese, especially when considering Kurosawa's large body of films set in feudal Japan. Relatively speaking, not much has been written about how his more modern-set films continue to influence Hollywood today. That's worth exploration. Having said that, this is worth reading.