High and Low Review

In its purest sense is a kidnapping and the later ransom exchange nothing more than a business transaction? It is this question which fuels High and Low, Akira Kurosawa’s 1963 thriller taken from one of Ed McBain’s pulp fictions. At its centre, at least initially, is Toshiro Mifune’s industrialist, a ruthless businessman whose attempts to takeover the company for which he has worked for the last thirty years and seriously curtailed by the kidnapping of his chauffeur’s son. The intended target was Mifune’s own son of roughly the same age, yet the ransom of 30 million yen still stands leaving him with a moral and financial crisis: should he pay the ransom and thus lose his luxurious lifestyle?

Before the kidnapping has even begun, the tone of High and Low is firmly established. The opening scene sees Mifune and his fellow executives discuss where they wish for National Shoe, the company at which they work, to progress to. Profits are discussed and numbers are mentioned all through clipped, direct dialogue that gets straight to the point. It’s indicative of High and Low as a whole; everything that occurs or is discussed is of the utmost importance, whilst all the options and permutations are weighed up. The later detective work is not the result of one gifted individual in the Columbo mode, but conducted in formal meetings in which everyone speaks their turn and all of the relevant information is divulged. This may make the film sound distinctly unexciting or perhaps even overtly theatrical, yet it is only one part of the overall picture; as with 12 Angry Men, it is the tensions between the various figures that keeps the viewer gripped.

Indeed, High and Low’s greater depth when compared to the McBain original comes courtesy of its placing with the hierarchies of Japanese class system. During the first half we repeatedly see everyone around Mifune - including the detectives on the case - tied down by their subservience. The chauffeur, played by Yatuka Sada, can only apologetically occupy the edges of the frame, suffering in silence until incontrollable impulses force him to beg his master for his son’s life. Yet there’s also a rare reserve to Mifune’s performance which matches this mood. Dressed in cardigan and donning a sensible moustache, this is a very different portrayal than those in Seven Samurai and Hell in the Pacific, say, or even I Live in Fear. Moreover, it’s also very much a static performance in comparison to the vast majority of his other roles, yet this only serves to make him a weightier presence and give him a slight Machiavellian edge (an aspect that no doubt would have aided many of his other characters, from Rashomon to Throne of Blood).

Such weight is important as Mifune figures less prominently on-screen during the second half. The mid-point ransom exchange mirrors an exchange of narratives as Kurosawa leaves his lead actor behind and focuses more intently on the kidnapper and the detectives’ dogged pursuit of him. Yet Mifune is still the key, the focus of all the drama and as such his off-screen presence is needed to marry the film. Without it, High and Low could appear to be separate films, the title echoing its structure. Indeed, the director is far more cinematically adventurous during the second half (though the first is by no means stylistically redundant), adopting hand-held camerawork, location filming and a teasing use of the score (for the most part High and Low unfolds without accompaniment). We also see him indulging in various set-pieces, from the gripping real-time ransom exchange to a wonderfully unexpected dance sequence-cum-drugs exchange, both of which prove that Kurosawa was equally at home with a modern day setting as he was in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Yet there is no imbalance here, rather Mifune and what he signifies - ruthlessness (even if he does soften a little bit), wealth - continually infuse the picture, allowing it to be not only a terrific thriller, but also a damning indictment of 1960s Japanese society.

The Disc

The BFI’s release of High and Low marks an improvement over previous DVD releases (including the Criterion) insofar as it is in correct ratio (approximately 2.55:1) and presented anamorphically. However, the print is decidedly murky and not quite as sharp as it could have been. The blacker sections of the screen produce some highly visible ghosting meaning that, whilst watchable, there is still a degree of disappointment. Note also that despite being a UK Region 2 release, the disc is in the NTSC format. As for the soundtrack, the disc reproduces the original Japanese mono with no discernible problems, though the subtitles - whilst not burnt into the print - are non-optional. With regards to the extras these amount only to a six-page booklet containing new liner notes and an archive review from the Monthly Film Bulletin and brief biographies for Kurosawa and Mifune, though again this marks a slight improvement on the other available discs of the film.

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Last updated: 19/04/2018 09:06:19

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