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HTF DVD REVIEW: High and Low



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#1 of 16 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

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Posted July 20 2008 - 03:15 PM


High and Low
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Studio: Criterion
Year: 1963
Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1 anamorphic
Running Time: 143 minutes
Rating: NR
Audio: Dolby Digital 4.0 Japanese
Subtitles: English
MSRP: $ 39.95

Release Date: July 22, 2008
Review Date: July 20, 2008


The Film

5/5

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.


Video Quality

5/5

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.

Audio Quality

4/5

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.

Special Features

4/5

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.


In Conclusion

5/5 (not an average)

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.


Matt Hough
Charlotte, NC

#2 of 16 OFFLINE   Brett_M

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Posted July 22 2008 - 12:31 AM

Great review of a truly great work of cinema.
Many Shubs and Zuuls knew what it meant to roast in the depths of the Sloar that day I can tell you.

#3 of 16 OFFLINE   mike kaminski

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Posted July 22 2008 - 01:34 AM

I was so happy when I saw this was being re-released. Looks like its everything it should be--though I still have some reservations about the OAR. I hope my copy arrives on my doorstep today.

#4 of 16 OFFLINE   Matt Hough

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Posted July 22 2008 - 02:03 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by mike kaminski
I was so happy when I saw this was being re-released. Looks like its everything it should be--though I still have some reservations about the OAR. I hope my copy arrives on my doorstep today.

Your doubts may be justified. I didn't mention it in the PQ part of the review because it only becomes an issue once or twice, but the framing is a tad tight in some shots of the living room scenes in the first part of the film. It's closer to the OAR than previous DVD releases, but there still may be a sliver of picture information missing from the sides.

#5 of 16 OFFLINE   Jon Martin

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Posted July 22 2008 - 04:38 AM

Great review.

Quote:
Originally Posted by MattH.
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.

Do you think Criterion would ever get to release INCHON? I'm sure MGM would be willing to get rid of it. They haven't shown it since it was released theatrically. Only the Moon operated cable channels have shown it (Goodlife TV).

#6 of 16 OFFLINE   Mike*HTF

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Posted July 22 2008 - 08:16 AM

A proper release of Inchon has been on my list of wants for ages.

#7 of 16 OFFLINE   mike kaminski

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Posted July 22 2008 - 01:46 PM

Watching the DVD right now, I'm impressed but also a little disappointed. As I suspected, it appears Criterion might have done a new transfer from the same print they used before, which means the OAR is wrong. The extra-wide aspect ratio the film was shot in--NOT the standard anamorphic 2.35/2.39/2.40 that everyone seems to think, or so it would seem--is not entirely preserved here, as there is slight cropping on the left and right; generally it is not too major, but there is a feeling that things are framed just a bit too tight. I believe the BFI had the correct wider print, though I believe their transfer had a tad of vertical cropping. Its a minor drawback because there are a handful of shot where this becomes distracting, and it prevents the transfer from being a truely archival version of the film. The credits are also massively windowboxed--was this on the original 1998 transfer? I can't remember.

Also, I've noticed that Criterion has continued their high-contrast timing. I find this a bit distracting in some ways--sure the blacks are nice and dark, but the highlights are nearly blowing out and theres not enough midtone. I suppose this generally emulates the more luminant look that actually watching a theatrical print would have, but I still feel as though theres too much contrast. I noticed the same issue on the new edition of Yojimbo.

Okay, those are my complaints. I love the film so much that it really deserves perfection. I don't think it got it here, but its pretty close, and this is a really, really good set that I'm glad Criterion finally revisited.

#8 of 16 OFFLINE   Mike*HTF

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Posted July 22 2008 - 05:11 PM

This is a disappointment re: aspect ratio for such a brilliant film as this.
Now I might look into getting a copy of the R4/PAL Madman release.

#9 of 16 OFFLINE   mike kaminski

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Posted July 22 2008 - 06:06 PM

Well according to Matt, it seems to be slightly better than the previous Criterion transfer--maybe they used the same print but were able to crop less of the edges. Or maybe its a different print, but struck in the same 2.35 ratio. Now that I think about it, it does seem better than the first release, where I remember people on the edges of frames were cut in half--here, they are just crowded. Its not a huge deal, but now I'm curious what the actual aspect ratio of this film is; most people seem to say its "Tohoscope" but I wonder if there wasn't additional matting applied to the composition on top of that; I really don't know anything about Tohoscope but my understanding is that its just your standard anamorphic widescreen, in other words 2.35/2.39/2.40, which doesn't explain why its composed and shot wider than that.

#10 of 16 OFFLINE   BillyFeldman

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Posted July 23 2008 - 05:34 AM

Quote:
Originally Posted by mike kaminski
Well according to Matt, it seems to be slightly better than the previous Criterion transfer--maybe they used the same print but were able to crop less of the edges. Or maybe its a different print, but struck in the same 2.35 ratio. Now that I think about it, it does seem better than the first release, where I remember people on the edges of frames were cut in half--here, they are just crowded. Its not a huge deal, but now I'm curious what the actual aspect ratio of this film is; most people seem to say its "Tohoscope" but I wonder if there wasn't additional matting applied to the composition on top of that; I really don't know anything about Tohoscope but my understanding is that its just your standard anamorphic widescreen, in other words 2.35/2.39/2.40, which doesn't explain why its composed and shot wider than that.

I only have the Japanese DVD to compare - it doesn't have subtitles but I'm pretty good with Japanese since I lived there for seven years Posted Image

It is a very wide picture - seems like the early Cinemascope ratio - I think that's called 2:55:1 or something, right? There's a good deal more picture information on the left and right sides than the new DVD - I don't really know how they cropped these films theatrically and I have never seen this film in a theater, so I don't know what's right, but the framing looks good in the Japanese DVD and it's the official Toho release there. But were any theaters showing the wider ratio here in the US? I agree with the reviewer here and the other posters who say it's too tight on the sides - and doing the comparison it's never tight like that on the Japanese DVD.

#11 of 16 OFFLINE   mike kaminski

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Posted July 23 2008 - 05:51 AM

Yeah, I've always said that 2.55 looks to be what its aspect ratio is. I've never seen a Tohoscope print or transfer wider than the standard 2.35, but I wonder if maybe they briefly experimented with a wider 2.55 ratio the same way that cinemascope did. I think these were commonly shown in regular 2.35 anamorphic prints since most theaters do not accomodate extra-wide aspect ratios, which I must assume is where Criterion derived their transfers from. Perhaps the Toho release comes from some kind of original vault master of the original full scope release that Criterion did not have access to.

#12 of 16 OFFLINE   BillyFeldman

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Posted July 23 2008 - 10:55 AM

I just watched the excerpted documentary, which has footage from the film - all in the wider ratio of the Japanese DVD - for whatever it's worth. ADD: just watched the two Japanese trailers included and they, too, are at the wider ratio, so I'd say something is off with the transfer of the feature itself.

#13 of 16 OFFLINE   Lord Dalek

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Posted July 23 2008 - 05:18 PM

Look, its technically impossible that High and Low was originally 2.55:1 due to the fact that prints were issued with optical sound, it wasn't JUST magnetic prints. And that optical track cuts into the overall picture thus creating the 2.35:1 ratio. Further more if you actually look at the caps of the BFI as seen at DVDbeaver, its actually cropped more on the top and bottom and exposing what appears to be the extreme edges of the film on the left and right. This is my ultimate guess for the discrepancy, both transfers are "flawed" for whatever reason and saying one is more accurate than the other is a load of hogwash.

#14 of 16 OFFLINE   BillyFeldman

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Posted July 23 2008 - 05:35 PM

Quote:
Originally Posted by Lord Dalek
Look, its technically impossible that High and Low was originally 2.55:1 due to the fact that prints were issued with optical sound, it wasn't JUST magnetic prints. And that optical track cuts into the overall picture thus creating the 2.35:1 ratio. Further more if you actually look at the caps of the BFI as seen at DVDbeaver, its actually cropped more on the top and bottom and exposing what appears to be the extreme edges of the film on the left and right. This is my ultimate guess for the discrepancy, both transfers are "flawed" for whatever reason and saying one is more accurate than the other is a load of hogwash.

I'm not looking at some caps, I'm looking at the film as transfered to DVD by Toho (the studio that made the film) in Japan. And the framing on the sides isn't as tight as the Criterion - it's as simple as that, and it looks better. And since I presume you are not an expert in these matters, hogwash is, I'd guess, in the eye of the beholder. Posted Image

I haven't seen the BFI - where are you seeing these screencaps?

#15 of 16 OFFLINE   mike kaminski

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Posted July 23 2008 - 05:50 PM

The BFI caps are on the High and Low page at DVD Beaver.com.

Its true that they are slightly cropped on top and bottom. However, I remain convinced that the framing is in fact originally wider, and not just due to incidental cropping--every transfer crops a bit in some way or another, and the BFI release's vertical cropping is such an example. However, the Criterion's print is to me not simply the normal incidental cropping you find in a transfer, its too extreme, and its obvious that the shots were all COMPOSED to be much wider. Its not just the normal transfer cropping, its the entire print itself. It feels like it ought to be in the neighborhood of 2.55. That the original trailers on the disk itself have this approximate aspect ratio does nothing but support this--although I will have to do a direct comparison to be sure that these are not just cropped as well. However, in conjunction with the BFI and the wider Toho release, I remain convinced that the film, at the very least was not composed in the framing Criterion has presented it (beyond normal, incidental cropping), but that it actually was shot in an aspect ratio wider than 2.35.

This isn't that unbelievable--few people saw Ben Hur in its full scope since most theaters got 2.35 downconversions. Criterion might have transfered one of these (as their print source is simply a master positive, ie a master release print), while Toho might have based their transfer off the original pre-downconverted elements from their own vault.

#16 of 16 OFFLINE   Jon Martin

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Posted July 24 2008 - 02:08 AM

Has anyone contacted Criterion about this? They are always very open about talking about the transfer process and any questions about the aspect ratio.


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