Japan loves itself some good gang/crime cinema. There is an immense pile of Yakuza films, all dealing with Japan's infamous crime syndicate and their continuous battles with rival families for dominance. In their shadow you'll find a niche that deals with kid gangs doing something very similar, only on a smaller scale. Shigeaki Kubo's High & Low: The Movie is one of the more recent entries in this niche, and it combines all the best elements of its predecessors into a smoking hot pot of action and intrigue. It's not much of an entry-level production mind, but initiates are sure to love everything on display here.
In the wake of the Crows adaptations (Miike and Toyoda) and Sion Sono's Tokyo Tribe, Shigeaki Kubo and Exile Tribe (a popular J-Pop collective) launched their High & Low franchise. In three years time it spawned TV two seasons, two film prequels and a trilogy of feature-length sequels. High & Low: The Movie is the first entry in this sequel trilogy, meaning that the film comes with a lot of baggage, while at the same time it's moving towards an open ending, setting the stage for a bigger fight to come. It's a film that lives within an existing universe, so don't go in expecting a stand-alone movie.
Seeing the series and prequels is a must if you care about the deeper intricacies of the plot, but the film is nice enough to provide a quick recap at the start. More importantly though, High & Low: The Movie is more of a style explosion than it is a well-crafted story, so even though you might be missing out on quite a bit of background story, this isn't exactly Shakespeare material. That said, if this is your first time watching High & Low, the first half hour is going to be a pretty bewildering experience, with a gazillion different factions and characters fighting for screen time. In that sense, the film reminded me a little of Mozu, which was similarly obtuse about introducing newcomers to its world.
The plot revolves around an unnamed city divided into 5 factions. Collectively these factions form S.W.O.R.D., an organization that pretty much runs the entire city. Not everyone is happy with this status quo though. The Kyuryu Group, a long-standing Yakuza family, wants to regain control over their territory. They band together with the Mighty Warriors, another outsider group who are looking to break into the city. While they collectively wreak havoc upon the city, it's up to S.W.O.R.D. to get all the factions on board, in order to try and stop this new threat.
Series turned into feature films are rarely the most cinematic affairs, but High & Low: The Movie is a welcome exception. Its visual prowess kind of comes with the territory though, as these types of films are all about attitude, posing and looking tough. It's not a surprise then that the film goes through great lengths to make its protagonists look as badass as possible. Camera work and lighting are top-notch, the editing is modern and edgy and the fight cinematography is impressive. This film is a looker, but it is pretty flashy and in your face and might be a little too modern-looking for some.
With Exile Tribe on board, it was pretty much expected that the soundtrack would have a sizeable impact on the film. Some S.W.O.R.D. factions are almost uniquely linked to specific music styles, ranging from rock to hip-hop to dance. These factions even have their own theme song, though it never feels too intrusive or too on the nose. To be clear, the music itself is, but it's used in such a way that it really adds to the vibe and flow of the film. It's a great example of how a less than stellar soundtrack can still have a very positive and steering effect on a film.
If you've seen other films in this niche, you already know that a special kind of acting is required to make all of this work. It's not so much about emotions or feeding off of other actors, instead it's about posture and trying to look as badass as possible. You don't really need a lot of acting talent, but you do need plenty of flair and presence, especially since there are so many characters running around in this film. You have to make maximum impact in the short amount of time given to you. The cast was clearly with the director on this, and they do a pretty kick-ass job. Even the silliest of characters come off as confident and ready to bust some balls. Nobody's going to win any acting awards for this, but within the context of this film they all do a pretty terrific job.
It's a shame that High & Low doesn't have much of a presence outside of Japan. That said, it's not an easy franchise to sell, let alone get into without having access to the full array of entries. I'm pretty much okay with understanding only the bare-bones layout of the story and enjoying the rest of it for the stylistic madhouse that it is, but I realize that many others are bound to feel lost and ill at ease when they lack the proper context. Not that you can't piece everything together yourself, films like this aren't that hard to unravel, but the mad tempo of the first half hour is sure to break down a lot of potential fans.
That said, I loved every minute of High & Low: The Movie. The action is superb, the styling is just insane and the pacing is pleasantly fast, making this by far the flashiest and boldest high school brawler around. The film does slow down during the second half, as Kubo reveals a few twists while also setting the stage for the sequels. But in between all of that there's still the build-up toward a magnificent finale where all the different groups finally clash against each other. Fans of the genre can do little wrong with this one, but if you have no idea what I've been talking about so far, it's probably better to give films like Crows Zero or Tokyo Tribe a chance first.