High and Low Review

A wealthy shoe executive, immediately after brokering a clandestine deal to give him controlling majority and much-needed security in his corporation, receives a phone call claiming the man's young son has just been kidnapped. The boy's return can be exchanged for 30 million yen. No police involvement. The man and his wife are understandably distraught. He's just agreed to pay shareholders 50 million yen for their interest, mortgaging everything he owns in the process, but now he can hardly justify the deal with his son at the mercy of a kidnapper. But wait. What if the kidnapped child wasn't actually the man's son, but instead the son of the businessman's chauffeur? Where do his interests lie then, and how does the man possibly reach the proper path of the matter?

Working loosely from American crime novelist Ed McBain's "87th Precinct" book King's Ransom, director Akira Kurosawa brandished one of the finest, most accomplished films of his career. High and Low, literally translated as Heaven and Hell from the original Japanese title, defines ethical impossibility and refuses to placate its characters or its audience. The film is a brilliant blast of ambiguity and behavioural resistance to any sense of right and wrong. The questions it asks are demanding, troublesome, and forever relevant. Only through the furious performance of Toshiro Mifune as the film's protagonist Kingo Gondo can we begin to reconcile what it means to have the well-earned luxuries, indeed to give off the appearance of enviable wealth, and carry this privilege in the face of complete resentment and hatred.

It's not that Kurosawa really makes the audience feel sorry for Mifune's character. That would be much too simplistic and almost insulting. Far more tense is not letting the viewer know where to side. Kingo is entirely damned with either choice he can make. His whole life rests with the 50 million yen he was ready to use in purchasing company stock. Giving over 30 million guarantees neither the safe return of the boy nor his continued livelihood. Yet, not doing so, and thus not knowing whether this potential madman will murder the young child, condemns his karmic future as well as his company's should the decision be made public. Kurosawa winks that there is no right answer. Simply soaking it all in while the uneasiness plays out seems to be the best option.

As a master of pacing to rival, if not surpass, the likes of Lang and Hitchcock, Kurosawa employs tension when necessary and then simply moves on. For roughly the first hour, the focus is squarely on Mifune's Kingo and the attempts to retrieve the kidnapped boy. Kingo's life and business are scrutinised to the point of exhaustion as he struggles with commerce versus morals. The social class separation is supercharged and continuously builds throughout the film, remaining as one of the only consistent themes in the whole. Where we go isn't so much the question as how we go, which, in the transition of halves, would be via train. After ratcheting up the tension almost entirely in one room, without even remotely feeling stagy or theatrical, Kurosawa moves to the most cinematic mode of transportation - the rails. Though the train portion is rather brief, it's thrillingly effective. The scene not only works brilliantly as a claustrophobic parallel to Kingo's increasingly shattered life, but it also establishes the kidnapper as a formidable adversary.

Bisected almost exactly at the film's midpoint, what was once a gripping character study/portrait of social class distinction with emphasis on how difficult, impossible even, it would be to bargain your livelihood with another's life unexpectedly becomes a strict police procedural. Tatsuya Nakadai's character Tokura, a police inspector on the case from the beginning, assuredly manages the investigation that is now an all out manhunt of the kidnapper. As clues and pieces of evidence are methodically put together to track down the culprit, the film begins to lag for twenty or thirty minutes. Though reminiscent of numerous American movies and television programmes, everything from Jules Dassin's The Naked City to The Untouchables series and infinite television shows afterwards, Kurosawa's film here dips into territory rendered stale by the decades. It remains always interesting, but this period immediately after the money drop is the least compelling point of the picture.

The contemplative payoff comes when the kidnapper is identified and tracked by Team Nakadai. Kurosawa, maintaining his characteristic humanity in this portion but doing so perhaps at arm's length, makes sure to harshen the indictment by portraying the mirrored-sunglasses antagonist as cunning and remorseless. His motivation of squalid neediness in constant view of Kingo's residence atop a hill, a house in contempt for all the lesser beings, seems considered, yet ultimately rejected by Kurosawa. Whatever actual empathy exists within the character's gold-plated heart, Kingo is easily loathed for his (likely unintentional) boastfulness. You can blame the kidnapper for his actions, but maybe not for his feelings against Kingo.

The class divide is floated out by Kurosawa, but thankfully doesn't become overbearing. His narrative stylings are so riveting as to keep the primary viewer entirely attached to the film while still allowing more demanding audience members the opportunity to delve deeper into the director's mindset. High and Low is ultimately two genre-inflected B-films joined at the hip and tweaked by a master. Perhaps because of this, the label of film noir undoubtedly comes up, and not without reason. Much of the intrigue and insanity of that movement is here for the taking, but also with considerable depth and contemplation. The very final climax, beginning with the kidnapper maneuvering through a dance hall and, then, a drug den, and concluding with his riveting capture, is as strong as anything Kurosawa directed outside the safe harbour of samurai cinema. The sequence is absolutely commanding in how it draws the viewer's attention away from any plot-based narrative and into the scene at hand. It's reminiscent of Kurosawa's excellent Stray Dog, but still exceeds the promise from that earlier film and maintains a far more subtle reflection of Japan's postwar underbelly.

In contrast with Stray Dog, however, High and Low seems to find Kurosawa less hopeful with the direction of Japan. Certainly films like Stray Dog and Drunken Angel reflected a frustration with the country after World War II, and how its social structure was in disarray. But in High and Low, the director extends a more defeatist view. Capitalistic side effects have plagued both those entrenched in the kidnapper's village and the more fortunate like Kingo's family. If the problem isn't failure to achieve and understand such stark class distinctions, then it's the wealthy fat dripping off increasingly materialistic existences. By the film's end, after a feature-length interlude that lessens the focus from that disparity of wealth, Kurosawa brings everything crashing back to the fore. The final conversation between the industrialist and his tormentor, and especially the last shot of a frozen Kingo, are wrapped soundly in pessimism. The director's refusal to imbue any sense of definitive hope or answer to the problem makes for a powerful and upsetting fade to black.

The Discs

High and Low was originally released by the Criterion Collection in 1998 in what, over the years, had become one of the label's worst releases in terms of supplements (none), image (lacking in quality and enhancement), and price ($40 retail). The BFI tried its hand back in 2005 (reviewed by Anthony Nield), but the consensus seemed to lack any sense of it being a definitive release. It took nearly a full decade for Criterion to effectively save the day, but High and Low is finally available in an edition at the very least worth owning, if not downright mandatory. The two-disc set is encoded for R1 and housed in a transparent keepcase with overlapping discs.

The anamorphic image is advertised at 2.35:1, though actually closer to 2.31:1, which is not quite as wide as the BFI's 2.55:1 release of the film. It's my understanding that the latter is probably the more accurate ratio, but that this version actually features more information in the frame. The progressive transfer done by Criterion is a significant improvement on its earlier release, even if this new image still looks too bright at times. The initial scenes in the Kingo home can be almost blinding, to the point that it appears to have been filmed in an intentionally high contrast. The more likely scenario would seem to be some boosting for this DVD, if not quite as much as found in the first release. Black levels are nonetheless impressively displayed. Only minimal grain is here, possibly too little for some tastes, though digital noise can be seen. Detail is at the very least satisfactory, and yet another improvement over the older Criterion disc. This image is also quite clean, nearly devoid of any significant dirt or scratches. Aside from the apparent brightness boosting, High and Low looks good enough in comparison to its earlier release that any complaints are quite minor. After a decade dealing with a subpar, nonanamorphic image, it's a welcome relief to finally have this new transfer.

Unlike both the BFI and older Criterion issue, this release has restored the original four-track surround sound. The Japanese Dolby Digital 4.0 audio is the only listening option, and it sounded effectively tense to my ears. Kurosawa relies heavily on jazzlike musical cues to underscore the action, all of which are heard clearly and evenly in this presentation. The stereo mix is otherwise untested and heavy in dialogue, but gives no cause for concern. Volume levels are consistently strong throughout the picture. English subtitles, advertised as new and improved, are available and white in colour. The DD 2.0 mono track from the first release has been dropped here.

In terms of extras, disc one is limited to a new commentary from Stephen Prince (who's done tracks for several of Criterion's other Kurosawa titles). His comments are comprehensive and well-researched. Prince's prepared statements only rarely dip into repetition or dryness, and he largely keeps the listener engaged, even mentioning several distinctions between McBain's book and the film. The material covers several aspects of the movie, but is most often analytical, with a particular interest in Kurosawa's use of the wide frame. Prince is also very complimentary of the movie as a whole, aside from stating the final act is "deformed" in relation to the rest of the picture. I understand Prince's reasoning, but this portion is so dynamic, and actually does maintain the second half consistency of pursuing the kidnapper at all costs, that I find his apparent reservations to be misplaced.

By now Kurosawa fans have come to expect an installment of the Toho Masterworks series "Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create" (37:00) each time Criterion releases one of the director's films, and High and Low is no different. The informative making-of documentary leads off the supplements on disc two and it's typical of the quality found in these programmes, featuring interviews with many of the film's contributors including the director himself. Much of what's heard in Prince's commentary is repeated, but it should still be a pleasing watch for those who enjoy the film.

A half-hour interview from 1981 with Toshiro Mifune is a true highlight of the set. Criterion has now released 17 films in their main line starring Mifune and I believe this is the first to feature a substantial interview with the renowned actor. The piece finds Mifune promoting the Japanese airing of the television miniseries Shogun, but interviewer Tetsuko Kuroyanagi also touches on several other aspects of the actor's life. The then-upcoming opening of his acting school, including a brochure depicting Alain Delon, is mentioned, as is Mifune's growing up in the Chinese port city Dalian. There isn't a lot of career reflection in the interview, and his work with Kurosawa is only briefly referenced. Still, I found this to be quite rewarding and fascinating to watch as a rare glimpse at an icon.

Done just for this release, a new interview (19:03) with actor Tsutomu Yamazaki, the kidnapper in the film, is a nice remembrance of his experiences working with Kurosawa for the first time. This is the type of supplement Criterion seems to do better than most any other company out there - a nicely edited piece not too long, not too short, and containing some interesting anecdotes. Imagining Yamazaki and Mifune riding to and from the set everyday makes for an especially fun wrinkle to their characters' relationship.

Finally, trailers for the Japanese (3:37) and American (1:41) releases of the film, as well as a Japanese teaser (1:53), are included and all of some interest. The full Japanese trailer features the only known footage in existence of the film's original ending.

Inside the case, an attractively designed 38-page booklet contains a lengthy essay by Geoffrey O'Brien in which he eloquently touches on much of what makes the film so compelling. An on-set account by Donald Richie, published in Films and Filming magazine in 1963, is also included. In the article are comments by Kurosawa and Mifune, with a focus on the director's methodical filmmaking and the theme of morality in his films. Worth mentioning, the short essay by Chuck Stephens found in the original release is absent here.

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