What if I told you there’s an action franchise that outmatches most of its competition, even though it’s barely known outside of its native Japan? What if I told you its whole concept rests on the idea of turning popular J-pop singers into skilled fighters who can deliver both star power and martial-arts kinetics with equal charisma?
Success was built into the DNA of the HiGH&LOW series. But even with a significant portion of the franchise now on Netflix, it’s hard to know where to start or what’s going on, given the series’ scope. This guide should help.
What is HiGH&LOW?
HiGH&LOW is a multimedia franchise that started off as High&Low: The Story of S.W.O.R.D., a two-season TV drama initiated by the incredibly popular, successful EXILE TRIBE, a collective of J-pop artists founded by the EXILE boys band. Action-packed and ambitiously scripted, the TV series aims at creating a rich, detailed world of gang rivalries, brotherly love, broken loyalties, criminal conspiracies, and even a touch of capitalist greed. Formally speaking, it endeavors to be simultaneously character-driven and action-driven, with a dizzying number of characters crossing paths and frequently changing the direction of the narrative, as well as — this is important — breathtaking action scenes that showcase world-class stunts and inspiring camera work. More on that in a minute.
The TV series was expanded into a multi-format franchise that includes manga, a companion book, an anime, a mobile game, studio albums, concerts, and a series of films. Netflix acquired all seven films from the franchise for a number of international markets, including the United States and the United Kingdom.
Why should you watch it?
Let’s go straight to the point: if you enjoy watching action cinema in any capacity, you owe it to yourself to give the HiGH&LOW franchise a try. The rival gangs that inhabit this world spend half their time embroiled in sprawling character drama, and the other half fighting ferociously to maintain control of their territory, right wrongs, or avenge their friends.
The story centers around five urban gangs collectively referred to as S.W.O.R.D.:
Sannoh Rengokai Hoodlum Squad
Oya High School
These gangs took control of different parts of their unnamed city (called “S.W.O.R.D. City” by the fans) after the legendary Mugen gang was disbanded, following an unsettled feud with the indomitable, mysterious Amamiya brothers. Always on the verge of all-out war, the gangs maintain a fragile balance that can be compromised even by minor events. The Kuryu Group, a dangerous yakuza organization, sees the void left by Mugen as an opportunity to seize control of the region and start shady real-estate projects that would dramatically alter the face of the city. Naturally, this being a franchise created by J-Pop artists, music has a special place in the films, with a dedicated title song for each faction.
In their many clashes and their efforts to resist the yakuza’s intrusions, the five gangs get into epic, ambitious, sometimes absolutely mind-blowing fights. The cast of J-Pop singer-dancers aren’t professional martial artists, but they put in the work to make it look like fighting is second nature. Using drones and elaborately choreographed Steadicam shots, the directing team led by Sigeaki Kubo have notably crafted unequalled one-takes – unbroken tracking shots that follow the fighters wherever they go, change focus and perspectives freely, and make it seems like the camera evolves, regardless of gravity’s constraints, in dense and varied sets.
In an era where action movies constantly attempt to wow the audience with ever more complex shots and oners, the HiGH&LOW team have been perfecting the art, rhythm, pace, and science of dynamic and constantly evolving tracking shots since their first season, reaching new heights in the most recent films. In most other movies and series, these types of shots encounter problems such as widely uneven pacing, repetition, or uninteresting setups.
Working with talented action choreographer Takahito Ôuchi, main franchise director Sigeaki Kubo solved all these issues by frequently and seamlessly shaking things up. The camera might suddenly jump 30 feet into the air, then go back down again a few seconds later. Viewers are taken through holes and broken windows, over walls, hurled through the fray, and spun around through dazzling, dizzying camera movements. Discreet digital transitions ensure the illusion of unbrokenness is maintained whenever physical continuity is logistically impossible. The energy and scenography are world-class.
The thing with action one-takes is that you have to edit without cutting. If you have two people fist-fighting with no change in setting, lighting, or camera movement, it becomes boring fast. Ôuchi and Kubo strive for diverse ways of making their signature one-takes more dynamic, more attention-grabbing, and more involving on a sensory level. The results aren’t always perfect, but they certainly are ambitious and exciting.
Takahito Ôuchi was the stunt coordinator on the Rurouni Kenshin trilogy, action-directed Black Butler and Ajin: Demi-Human, and worked on films such as Flash Point, Bodyguards & Assassins, and Crows Zero. The latter, a cult action film directed by unstoppable Japanese director Takashi Miike, more than likely had a strong influence on the massive brawls that the HiGH&LOW franchise is known for. Often, there are so many fighters in all corners of the screen, it should be easy for attentive viewers to spot background extras who are unsure of what they are doing. In the city of S.W.O.R.D., though, no one’s slacking.
But the franchise isn’t a one-trick action pony. Kubo offers plenty of variety beyond the celebrated one-takes, which make up a tiny fraction of the action. The movies include single combat, huge battles, and car chases. The story is steeped in mythical undertones: the past holds power over the characters, the Amamiya brothers are seen as legendary figures surrounded by mystery, and a “samurai” even shows up in a substantial role in spite of the modern urban setting. And police? What police? This is the world of J-pop boy-band singers and dancers turned deadly fighters. Think of it as a mythology for today’s youth.
Where to start?
As mentioned, Netflix acquired the rights to the seven films in the franchise, but not to the original TV series. Don’t fret, though: the first film is called Road to HiGH&LOW, and is an edit of the two seasons condensed into feature-film length. This recap isn’t the best point of entry into the franchise, though, due to the density of the information it conveys and the fact that it isn’t an actual film. Newcomers should skip this one at first and come back to it later if they become fans of the series. Here’s a more comprehensible and rewarding viewing order.
1. HiGH&LOW THE MOVIE (2016)
The first real film of the franchise includes a small recap of previous events at the beginning, so no worries, you can dive right in and start enjoying the ride straight away. The story centers around a former Mugen leader who is convinced by the Korean mafia to side with the Kuryu yakuza group to take control of the city. All five S.W.O.R.D. gangs come together to stop them, and even the legendary Amamiya brothers join the fight.
Highlight: The insane all-gang battle about two-thirds of the way in introduces new viewers to the logistical and technical wonders accomplished by the filmmaking team. A remarkable example of controlled chaos on screen, it reaches its pinnacle with a minute-long tracking shot that defies gravity as the handheld camera suddenly leaps up, then comes back down again. Keep an eye out for the final two-vs.-one fight as well, an impressive showcase of the actors’ physical commitment.
2. HiGH&LOW THE RED RAIN (2016)
The first spin-off movie of the franchise is dedicated to the Amamiya brothers. In the film, Masaki and Hiroto go searching for their elder brother Takeru, who mysteriously disappeared over a year ago. Their search unearths secrets from their past. Less action-oriented than the main trilogy (the final motorcycle chase is really great, though), the film is nevertheless compelling if the characters from the first movie piqued your curiosity. It’s also unusual and exciting to see director Yūdai Yamaguchi, known for his splatter work with films such as Battlefield Baseball, Meatball Machine, Yakuza Weapon, and Deadball, try his hand at an entirely different genre.
Highlight: Yūdai Yamaguchi undoubtedly has an eye for framing and striking images, and the scene of the brothers mourning in front of a broken statue in torrential rain is probably one the most emotionally and visually effective that the genre has to offer, J-pop ballad included.
If those first two films have you hooked and you want to know everything about the characters, you could potentially go back and watch the series recap Road to HiGH&LOW now. It’s for completists only, although it remains the best way to get acquainted with the TV show, which is otherwise only available on expensive, unsubtitled DVD box sets, which you have to import from Japan.
3. HiGH&LOW THE MOVIE 2 / END OF SKY (2017)
As several gangs face internal crises and are on the verge of disappearing, the Kuryu Group pursues its plan to build a casino in the S.W.O.R.D. area. Not willing to let corrupt capitalism take away their way of life, the gangs attempt to bring to light the bribes some politicians have been taking from the yakuza. Ensue exhilarating chases and merciless gang battles.
Highlight: I could spend three paragraphs singing the praises of yet another breathtaking tracking shot, but you know what? That chase between the Amamiya brothers and the “samurai”-like assassin Genji Kuki truly is something else!
4. HiGH&LOW THE MOVIE 3 / FINAL MISSION (2017)
The Kuryu Group, sick and tired of seeing their plans thwarted by a bunch of teenage-faced troublemakers, collude with the government to eradicate all five gangs once and for all. The final battle for the fate of S.W.O.R.D. city begins.
Highlight: The conclusion to the main trilogy takes the play on vertical camera movements to extremes during its one-take scene, switching floors, climbing walls, and jumping off them. A masterclass in how to make an ever-evolving and engaging fight scene that gives equal importance to the what and the how (i.e., the choreography and the camera work).
5. DTC -Yukemuri Junjou Hen- from HiGH&LOW (2018)
Take a well-deserved break from action films with the franchise’s second spin-off, its sole incursion in the comedy genre. DTC is a light, endearing road movie that focuses on three members of the Sannoh Rengokai Hoodlum Squad after the events of the final mission. It contains no action scenes whatsoever, so skip it if you’re in the series just for that, but if you become invested in those characters, this film gives them appropriate space to breathe and grow.
6. HiGH&LOW THE WORST (2019)
The latest spinoff is a crossover event movie between the Oya High School gang of HiGH&LOW and the delinquent Housen Academy of the Crows/Worst manga universe created by Hiroshi Takahashi. In the film, the two gangs become rivals and engage in an epic battle.
Highlight: The Japanese high-school brawl to end all Japanese high-school brawls takes place around the halfway mark, and oh boy, does it deliver! Its expected one-take reaches stratospheric levels of impossibly cool flow and energy. Unless you’re already a fan of this series, you’ve never seen anything like it.
The HiGH&LOW film series is now streaming on Netflix.