Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 143 minutes
Audio: Dolby Digital 4.0 Japanese
MSRP: $ 39.95
Release Date: July 22, 2008
Review Date: July 20, 2008
A masterpiece of story construction, cinematic technique, and explosive performance, Akira Kurosawa’s High and Low is one of the greats. So impressive are its achievements and so riveting is its narrative that almost two and a half hours go by in what seems like less than an hour. Filled with the performers and the moviemaking moxie that kept Kurosawa at the height of world cinema for decades, High and Low is a film that has only grown in stature in the years since its release. Criterion’s one-of-a-kind release is one of this year’s supreme achievements.
On the eve of pulling off one of the most brilliant business coups of his life, a risky takeover bid for the National Shoe Company which he has made the toast of the industry, Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune) finds himself on the verge of financial ruin when a kidnapper abducts the son (Masahiko Shimazu) of his longtime chauffeur (Yutaka Sada) and demands a ransom of thirty million yen. Faced with the conundrum of saving the child or preventing his own wife (Kyoko Kagawa) and son of losing the life of luxury and privilege they’ve always enjoyed, Gondo has an anguishing decision to make. Aided by the police led by Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) and head detective “Bos’n” Taguchi (Kenjiro Ishiyama) who insist his cooperation will get their full support in recovery of the money if offered, Gondo sacrifices his life’s work for the sake of the servant’s child. But the ransom story and drop-off is just the first hour of the film. The remainder involves the elaborate dragnet undertaken to identify the kidnappers and a long, painstaking procedural process to bring them to justice with the maximum penalties possible.
What might sound like a dry crime drama/procedural on paper couldn’t be more riveting with gut-bursting emotions on display, one of the tensest sequences of tailing a suspect ever presented on film, and a payoff that will have viewers shuddering. Kurosawa has filmed this domestic drama/crime story so compellingly that one can't help but get swept up in its wake, and it never stops to breathe, not even when inspector after inspector offer nothing of a positive value to report as they chase down every possible clue.
Every inch of the wide Tohoscope frame contains Kurosawa’s fascinating, sometimes stylized people placements with compositions so arrestingly arranged that the eye is never at rest exploring his handiwork. The camerawork, sometimes filmed from a crane somewhat above the action and sometimes below eye level of the actors (High and Low is an apt English name for the film), keeps the viewer engaged both at distances and right in the heart of the emotions as these people struggle to do the right thing amid the frightful unknowns happening around them. You’ll look in vain to find sequences that match the nerve-jangling tailing of the perpetrator through Yokohama streets or a singularly horrifying descent into a heroin addicts’ den where hopheads agonizingly scratch the tin walls in their spasms of withdrawal.
Toshiro Mifune is undoubtedly center stage for the film’s first hour, dominating as only he can as the wily business executive reduced to an emotional wreck with the maelstrom of feelings he’s trying to cope with from within himself and from his family who are begging him to do the right thing even if it costs them their creature comforts. Second billed Tatsuya Nakadai displays a professional’s cool and calm as all around him spin out of control that‘s very appealing. One’s heart certainly goes out to Yutaka Sada’s chauffeur, especially his overriding sense of guilt for causing his boss’s downfall. And wily albeit quiet Kenjiro Ishiyama is perfectly cast as the police veteran who methodically goes about his business until the guilty party is identified. And though we don’t get much inside the head of Tsutomu Yamazaki’s kidnapper until very late in the movie, his performance is chillingly compelling and leaves the film with one of cinema’s most indelibly harrowing images.
The 2.35:1 original theatrical aspect ratio is reproduced in this high quality Criterion transfer. (The credit sequence is windowboxed, but the remainder of the movie extends to the edges of the screen.) The superb grayscale of the transfer is a delight to behold with rich, inky blacks and shadow detail that’s first rate. Sharpness is top notch for the most part (the remnants of some processing to remove what appears to have been water spots happens early in the movie), and the transfer is so rock solid that every single opportunity for tight line structures to break apart into compression artifacts never happens. The one moment of color in the movie is so memorable that it’s like a gift from the movie gods. Subtitles are in white and are very easy to read. The film has been divided into 27 chapters.
The Dolby Digital 4.0 audio track is very front centric as the film involves a great deal of talking, but the two or three sequences when surround effects come into play (a trolley car passing, music in a nightclub) finds the rears filled with appropriate sounds. Unfortunately, there is on several occasions some judder in the track which keeps it from attaining a perfect audio score.
Disc one features an outstanding audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince. A combination of scene analysis, background information on the actors and their previous and future experience with director Kurosawa, and interesting facts about the director, his prior work, and the motivations for the subject matter and style of the film, the commentary is worthy of a film this exceptional.
Disc two begins with an outstanding excerpt from the Toho series “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create.” This completely engaging overview of the making of the film includes comments from many actors and production personnel remembering their work on the project. It’s in 4:3 and runs 37 minutes.
An interview with Toshiro Mifune conducted for Japanese TV in 1981 doesn’t mention High and Low specifically, but interviewer Tetsuko Kuroyanagi takes the international star on a trip down memory lane as he discusses his war service and his early hopes for a film career as a photographer’s assistant. The films he discusses happen to be his two most recent projects: Shogun and Inchon. The interview lasts 30 ½ minutes.
Actor Tsutomu Yamazaki discusses his work in the film in an interview filmed in anamorphic widescreen in 2008. It runs 19 minutes.
Three theatrical trailers are offered: the 3 ½-minute Japanese anamorphic original (which features footage of the original ending subsequently cut), a 1 ¾-minute Japanese teaser trailer (also in anamorphic), and the nonanamorphic U.S. trailer which runs 1 ½ minutes.
The enclosed 37-page booklet contains production stills, an analysis of the movie by author Geoffrey O’Brien, and Japanese film scholar Donald Richie’s reminiscences of being on the set during filming.
Films as great as High and Low really need no recommendation from me. One of the classics of procedural drama directed by one of the world’s most celebrated artists, it’s a must see for all fans of great cinema.