High and Low is one of the best action series in production today, and also one of the most prolific. Most people in the west, however, haven’t heard of it.
It’s time to rectify that. High and Low is a Japanese franchise created in 2015 and continuing to this day. The franchise’s movies are all currently available on Netflix with subtitles. The sheer volume of parts to the story and spin-off works has often drawn a comparison to America’s Fast and Furious, but story-wise High and Low is unquestionably stronger. Themes! Character arcs! Social commentary on irresponsible corporations and corrupt politicians!
Actually, High and Low‘s also far more interesting when it comes to the action, too.
Every Character Is A Main CharacterOne of High and Low‘s marketing points is that every character could be a main character. That’s not an exaggeration, either. Within five minutes of introducing a character, the viewer knows what the character wants, what their obstacles are to getting what they want, and what their flaws are. As a result, each and every character is compelling.
However, with so many characters, not everyone gets the chance to be fully fleshed out. Still, no characters get shafted either.
One side character who stands out as unique is Kizzy, a member of the White Rascal gang. A transwoman who doesn’t appear particularly feminine, the viewers meet her when she and her husband help save a girl from human traffickers.
Within five minutes, we learn that Kizzy used to be a trafficker herself as a way of self-harming in a world she saw as hopeless. When a man named Rocky comes along to stop Kizzy from her crimes, he recognizes that she is a woman and tells her that he doesn’t fight women.
After that, Kizzy and her then-boyfriend leave their lives of crime and dedicate the rest of their lives to saving women. Tightly written and well-executed, Kizzy’s arc ties into the overarching plot. It also comments on the theme of struggling to live in a world that looks so hopeless. Not to mention it cleverly deconstructs the worst stereotypes pushed today by people like J.K. Rowling.
What Is High and Low About?High and Low is set in a mysterious, unnamed city in a run-down version of Japan. The gritty city has cops and schools and all those signs of a functional society, but it’s really run by its gangs.
First up is the gang called Mugen, Japanese for “infinity.” Mugen’s symbol is the classic snake consuming itself, and this proves a fitting metaphor. Mugen gets to be too large and collapses in on itself after a series of missteps, including a lost fight against the legendary Amamiya brothers.
After Mugen’s disbandment comes SWORD, an acronym for five new gangs made up of the remnants. SWORD eventually teams up with the Amamiya brothers in order to face the Kuryu Group, or the yakuza (organized crime).
Each gang maintains its unique identity while fighting Kuryu, who represent gentrification and corruption. While all the gangs technically operate outside of the law, they maintain a level of compassion and loyalty that the wealthy, orderly, and power-drunk Kuryu Group does not. The story tackles the horrors of gentrification with surprising honesty. Plus, it accurately details how society treats people it sees as poor or unruly.
It even delves into the often unreported reality of wealthy companies and governments dumping toxic waste in communities where people they don’t think matter live, and what it means for residents of those towns when no one cleans up the mess. For real life allusions, see the Flynn water crisis or Bhopal.
High and Low ActionS stands for “Sannoh Rengokai,” or Sannoh Hoodlums, run by Mugen’s former member Cobra. W stands for “White Rascals,” run by feminist Rocky, his assistant Koo, and fight couple Kaito and Kizzy (a transwoman) who found the organization to protect women and kill men who hurt women.
O is for “Oya High.” Yes, high school, where no one really studies. Led by Murayama Yoshiki, Oya High starts off as a rival of Sannoh and later becomes Sannoh’s most loyal ally. Fourth are the “Rude Boys,” who live in the city’s slums and are led by Smokey, a terminally ill boy who considers the slum his heaven and the residents his family.
Finally, D stands for “Daruma Ikka,” a reference to a famous game you may know from Squid Game as the Japanese/Korean version of Red Light/Green Light. Led by Norihisa Hyuga, Daruma perviously worked with Kuryu, until they lost to Mugen and were kicked out.
The fights themselves all work as metaphors for struggles in real life. The characters fight to protect their loved ones, their homes, and they fight against the rich seeking to exploit them. In this way, High and Low stands apart from most popular western action franchises. The characters aren’t rich, gifted, or part of any special class like James Bond.
Fans of martial arts have a lot to love here, too. Each gang has their own particular fighting style based on martial arts. Furthermore, each character has their own unique quirks as well.
Hence, the action is particularly exciting even for those who are more interested in the story than in fights. The fights are the story. Each character’s fighting style reveals parts of their personality, from what sets them off and what they’re willing to do to win. For example, Norihisa Hyuga resorts to biting if necessary, symbolizing his desperation to win at all costs. The resourceful White Rascals use weapons. On the other hand, Oya High, which honors brute strength, frowns upon using anything other than fists and kicks.
Each character having their own style also makes fights particularly unpredictable. Different styles do better against certain styles than others.
Starring… Exile TribeThe franchise centers itself on a lot of J-Pop. Specifically, a lot of the actors are actually members of Exile, a Japanese music group with an endlessly rotating group of members. Exile also produces most of the music for the show, with each gang having its own theme song.
The songs tend to vary from rock-based to hip-hop, and are pretty cool on their own. The Rude Boys’ theme song, “Run This Town,” is a particular stand-out, as is one of the non-Exile songs on the soundtrack: “Break into the Dark.”
Unsurprisingly, this franchise spawned a concert series in addition to its main stories.
High and Low: The WorksHigh and Low has multiple TV shows and multiple movies.
The series starts with a two season TV show called High&Low: The Story of SWORD. The show maintains impressive continuity and sets up multiple plot points that reach their climax in a series of four movies.
High&Low: The Movie picks up where the second season’s finale leaves off. Next, High&Low: The Red Rain focuses on the Amamiya brothers, while crafting in the final puzzle piece needed to bring all the plot points together. The final two movies, High&Low: End of Sky and High&Low: Final Mission, conclude the saga.
However, there’s more! Three members of Sannoh get their own spin-offs, both of which delve into vastly different genres. Firstly, they get a TV show with the premise of the characters trying their hand at comedy. Second was a movie set after Final Mission that is really more romantic comedy than action.
Then, High&Low: The Worst begins. The Worst focuses on Oya High and starts with a six-episode TV show (The Worst 0) that, timeline-wise, overlaps with End of Sky. High&Low: The Worst is a spin-off movie that completes Murayama Yoshiki’s arc while introducing new characters.
The most recent movie, High&Low: The Worst X takes the new characters introduced in The Worst and gives them their own stories. None of the original cast return, but true to the writers’ skills, these new characters hold their own. It probably doesn’t hurt that The Worst X crosses over with a popular manga and cast a well-known K-Pop star as one of its stars.
High and Low: The FlawsLike every franchise, High and Low has its flaws. Everyone in this world doesn’t seem to have parents. Also, the high schools show a teacher once or twice, and never show a class. Women barely exist. The fights, while impressive, do leave viewers wondering how the characters aren’t dead or suffering from CTE.
While most of the characters are excellently done, the Mighty Warriors are notable for precisely how poorly done they are in comparison to everyone else. Introduced later in the series, this gang seems to have the odds stacked against them from the start, but the instantly lovable new characters introduced in The Worst proves that it’s not just newness that leaves viewers feeling cold. Instead, it’s the Mighty Warriors’ writing flaws. They’re repeatedly framed as protagonists but objectively are bad people who never face consequences in the same way everyone else does.
Fortunately, though, most of the stories focus on the characters we love.