Letterboxd Season Challenge: High and Low (1963)

Film 3 for the Letterboxd Season Challenge. The other films I plan to watch for the challenge are here.

Week 3, Sept 20-26: Master of the East
Challenge: Watch an unseen film directed by Akira Kurosawa
Film I Chose: High and Low (1963)

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I’ve been keeping up watching the films for the Letterboxd challenge; less so writing them up, and even less so posting my thoughts over here! So expect an onslaught of posts ever the next few days as I catch up. Japanese film is troublesome for me, and I often have trouble with even the most well-known and accessible films, like those from Kurosawa. That said, more exposure is definitely helping, and I’ve really been looking forward to High and Low, which was my first non-samurai Kurosawa film.

Maybe this is the direction I need to go, because I loved this. I knew the basics of the premise, that Toshiro Mifune played a businessman who has his son kidnapped and held for ransom, but then discovers that the kidnapper made a mistake and kidnapped his chauffeur’s son instead – will he still jeopardize his long-planned company takeover and risk losing everything in order to pay the ransom on the boy?

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Turns out that’s like the first half hour of a two and a half hour movie. The rest is a fascinating and meticulous police investigation into trying to find and trap the kidnapper, which involves really excellent police work (refreshing since a lot of times police in movies are totally incompetent), a trip through the seedier side of Tokyo and some truly disturbing heroin den scenes, and a commentary on the dichotomy between the economic divisions (the “high” and “low”) that plague society.

Kurosawa is always a wonderful technician, and that’s certainly true here, especially in how he arranges people in the frame – in the early ransom scenes, he’s working with often six or seven people in a shot, and he guides your attention perfectly between them purely with composition. Later on, surveillance through the city is meandering and confusing, but he’s able to keep it clear who and where everyone is in relation to each other.

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I definitely enjoyed this foray into Kurosawa’s crime/contemporary films, and will be seeking out more of them soon.

After watching a film, I always rank it on Flickchart, a movie website that pits movies against each other until you form your ranked list of favorite movies. Note that High and Low was one of only two films in the Flickchart Top 100 that I had not seen (the other is Rocky, and I’m in no hurry). Here’s how High and Low entered my chart:

High and Low > A Matter of Loaf and Death
High and Low > Through a Glass Darkly
High and Low > Hans Christian Andersen
High and Low < Schindler’s List
High and Low < Where Danger Lives
High and Low > Argo
High and Low < Galaxy Quest
High and Low > Frozen
High and Low < The Master
High and Low < The Narrow Margin
High and Low > Rebel Without a Cause
High and Low > Wall-E

Final ranking #369 out of 3537 (I actually ranked it again a few days after this and it landed at #195!)