Extortion, subterfuge and shoes, High and Low has it all. Shedding the samurai classics that turned his craft into poetic justifications of morality, director Akira Kurosawa turns his attention to the criminal world and the ever-pressing influence men can make on subordinates and employees. Those with ambitions of power will take comfort in the idea that their influence and thinly-veiled attacks on the just, unprovoked and pure will often be successful. Within High and Low, though, it drives a man from his placid lifestyle of slowly building his way up and through the ranks of the business he holds shares in to enraged and embroiled in controversy, kidnapping and a full-blown assault on his tranquil way of life.
How Kurosawa shows this is masterful. It is not the son of a businessman that is in peril, but the son of an employee. A divide in class is shown. The morally right choice would bankrupt the rich man, the morally wrong choice would hedge his bets and establish him as a frontrunner and candidate for ownership of the company. To some, or, one would hope, most, that choice is a simple one. But Kurosawa shows conflict inside a man who is looking to protect his interests and reserve his future for not just himself but his family and other employees. High and Low is a compelling moral lesson that fuels itself based on two warring characters who are complete strangers to one another. Toshiro Mifune is, as expected, incredible in his leading role as the rich businessman whose house overlooks those literally and monetarily below him.
It is this that fuels the rage. Kidnap is the focus of the first act, but it is the subsequent impact this has on concerned parties and kidnapper that Kurosawa develops over the course of the remaining runtime. How one man’s public sacrifice is taken as a heroic act, while privately he fumes and cries that he is ruined. He has no choice but to trade self-preservation for the moral deed, he does not choose it because he wishes it to happen, but because had he not he would have blood on his hands. While the after-effects are important, they are mere happenstance to his psyche, and the impact they make is struck down by the anger he feels at becoming a pariah and face of hope for the public.
Bad things happen to the jealous among men. High and Low offers no favour or sympathy for those who demand access to the easy life but have no skill to prove their worth. Neither does the film offer remedies for the woe-inflicted fight our leading man troubles himself with. Kurosawa crafts an incredible narrative, weaves it well into the technical merits, and provides one of the finest feature films he ever offered to audiences. His work is cutting, biting and a beautiful retaliation to the sensible idea that good things come to those who do the honourable, just task at hand. Good deeds do not reap great rewards, but bad choices are a slippery slope indeed.