Blu-ray Review High and Low Blu-ray Review

Discussion in 'Blu-ray and UHD' started by Matt Hough, Jul 25, 2011.

  1. Matt Hough

    Matt Hough Executive Producer

    Apr 24, 2006
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    Charlotte, NC
    Real Name:
    Matt Hough
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    High and Low (Blu-ray)
    Directed by Akira Kurosawa

    Studio: Criterion
    Year: 1963

    Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1   1080p   AVC codec
    Running Time: 143 minutes
    Rating: NR
    Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 Japanese
    Subtitles: English

    Region: A
    MSRP: $ 39.95

    Release Date: July 26, 2011

    Review Date: July 25, 2011

    The Film


    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 newly struck Blu-ray 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 (which the cops call “Dope Alley”) 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


    The 2.35:1 original theatrical aspect ratio is reproduced in this high quality Criterion transfer at 1080p using the AVC codec. (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 bright whites, 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 on one or two occasions, images on the left of the frame seem less sharp than the rest, possibly an anomaly with the lens being used at that moment), 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


    The DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 sound mix is not surprisingly fairly frontcentric as the film involves a great deal of talking (nicely directed to the center channel), but the two or three sequences when surround effects come into play (a trolley car passing, music in a nightclub, street sounds) finds the rears filled with appropriate sounds and even some pans through the film’s right soundstage. Unfortunately, there is on several occasions some flutter in the track when things are otherwise quiet and which is a bit jarring to the listener.

    Special Features


    There is a simply 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.

    All of the video featurettes are presented in 1080i.

    An outstanding excerpt from the Toho series “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create” focuses on High and Low. 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 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 2008. It runs 19 minutes.

    Three theatrical trailers are offered: the 3 ½-minute Japanese original (which features footage of the original ending subsequently cut), a 1 ¾-minute Japanese teaser trailer, and the 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.

    The Criterion Blu-rays include a maneuvering tool called “Timeline” which can be pulled up from the menu or by pushing the red button on the remote. It shows you your progress on the disc, the title of the chapter you’re now in, and index markers for the commentary that goes along with the film, all of which can be switched on the fly. Additionally, two other buttons on the remote can place or remove bookmarks if you decide to stop viewing before reaching the end of the film or want to mark specific places for later reference.

    In Conclusion

    5/5 (not an average)

    In a career filled with masterpieces, High and Low ranks among the greatest of Akira Kurosawa’s cinematic achievements. The Blu-ray release features stunning picture quality, more than adequate audio, and an interesting array of bonus material. Highest recommendation!

    Matt Hough

    Charlotte, NC

  2. JohnMor

    JohnMor Producer

    Mar 6, 2004
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    Los Angeles, CA
    Real Name:
    John Moreland
    Thanks Matt! Now if B&N will just ship my order! LOL. I can't wait to spin this blu ray!
  3. Ralphie_B

    Ralphie_B Stunt Coordinator

    Jan 4, 2006
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    You pushed me over the edge. I was TRYING not to go back to B&N again. I was SURE I'd bought my last Criterion disc this sale. But reading your review reminded me of all the things I appreciated about this film when I last watched it. That, plus re-watching Yojimbo and remembering just how well Blu-Ray does justice to the cinematography of Kurosawa's b&w films... I just couldn't resist. Pre-ordered.
  4. Robert Harris

    Robert Harris Archivist

    Feb 8, 1999
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    Real Name:
    Robert Harris
    What a great film!

    Sorry to send you back to B & N, but this is a must own.

    And that bit of pink in the image gets me every time.


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