The Cinema Behind Star Wars: High and Low

A longtime influence on Star Wars, Akira Kurosawa and his 1962 crime drama also impacted The Force Awakens.

Akira Kurosawa is easily one of the most influential filmmakers of all time, but he’s had a particular sway on those making Star Wars films. We’ve talked about so many of his movies in this column before, ranging from The Hidden Fortress all the way up to Kagemusha and a number of stops in between, that it’s no wonder that J.J. Abrams found inspiration from Kurosawa when he set to work on The Force Awakens. According to an interview with Empire magazine, Abrams studied today’s film, Kurosawa’s 1962 crime drama High and Low, for its “unbelievable scene choreography and composition.”

Although Kurosawa is known primarily for his samurai films, he was an incredible director of noir and crime films set in post-war Japan, as well. This isn’t even the first of these that influenced Star Wars, as we’ve already explored how his noir film Stray Dog influenced one of the best episodes of The Clone Wars. It was definitely wise for Abrams to looks to Kurosawa for visual inspiration — no one knew where to put the camera better than Kurosawa.

High and Low tells the story of a shoemaker named Gondo, played by Toshiro Mifune, as he’s jockeying for control of the company he’s worked at for 30 years. Just as he’s able to put the money together to take control of his company, his son is kidnapped. He must choose between buying control of the company and paying the ransom. An easy choice, right? Well, as he tells the kidnapper that he’ll pay, his son enters the room. They mistake the kidnapper as a prank caller until they realize that the kidnapper took his son’s best friend, the son of his chauffeur. The chauffeur is a penniless man and begs Gondo to pay the ransom anyway. The film is a stunning morality play that explores the lengths fathers go to in order to protect their sons. It plays out both as a crime drama as the police work to apprehend the kidnapper and a descent into despair as this kidnap attempt financially ruins Gondo.

The Force Awakens - Kylo Ren

Abrams wasted no time in taking cues from High and Low. High and Low’s opening shot, of Toshiro Mifune darkened in the frame and staring out of a window, is instantly reminiscent of Kylo Ren watching the initial firing of Starkiller Base. In fact, the hues of pink reflection in Kylo Ren’s mask might even echo Kurosawa’s spare use of color in this otherwise black and white film.

The impressive way Kurosaswa stages scenes, as Abrams mentioned in the Empire interview, brings with it a quiet intensity. Scenes full of people talking and waiting for a phone call in High and Low carry a weight and urgency to them that perhaps inspired Abrams in The Force Awakens, from Han’s first conversations with Rey and Finn aboard the Falcon to the expository scenes in Maz’s castle. Scenes in both films where people do nothing but talk still feel as intense as any of the biggest action sequences.

han-kylo

Aside from the visual staging of the shots and sequences, many parallels in theme and character could be drawn between the two films. First, obviously, are the themes of parents and children. What sacrifices do we owe our children and what sacrifices do we make for the children of the galaxy? It’s something that plagues Mifune’s character through High and Low, and the price we pay to save our children is the ultimate point of Han Solo’s entire arc in The Force Awakens.

Kylo Ren also shares similarities in both Mifune’s Gondo and the kidnapper himself. In many scenes, there’s a defiant stillness to Gondo that you can see in Kylo Ren. In much of the early scenes in The Force Awakens, he’s masked, giving him a poker face equal to that of Mifune’s. He also matches that stillness, like a cat waiting to pounce his prey if provoked. But in the kidnapper in High and Low, there’s a raw, untamed emotion that comes out in the scenes of his desperation. The helpless emotion bears a striking similarity to Kylo Ren’s outbursts when he’s working to tap into the dark side of the Force against the light.

At a press conference for The Force Awakens, Lawrence Kasdan said of the writing of the film, “All the movies of Akira Kurosawa have influenced me throughout my career. That’s because he was sort of the Shakespeare of cinema. He did comedies, he did action films, he did Shakespearian drama, and all of life is contained in each one of his films.” That is certainly true of High and Low. It’s a masterpiece worthy of the “Shakespeare of cinema.” It’s an intense film, assembled like the fine puzzle and worthy of your attention.

For those interested in watching the film with the family, it’s never been rated in the United States, but it got a rating of 12 in the UK. There are scenes of mild drug use and intense situations. I was able to take my son to see this on the big screen and, although he said he would have preferred a samurai offering from Kurosawa, he enjoyed it well enough. As for me, it’s one of my favorite Kurosawa pictures; the Japanese equivalent of a Hitchcock film.

Availability: High and Low is widely available on DVD and Blu-ray and for a modest rental fee on most streaming video services.

Bryan Young is an author, a filmmakerjournalist, and the editor in chief of BigShinyRobot.com! He’s also the co-host of the Star Wars podcast, Full of SithYou can also follow him on Twitter.

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