Criterion // 1963 // 143 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Daryl Loomis (Retired) // August 11th, 2011
I will not pay!
In 1963, during a period of immense creativity, director Akira Kurosawa (Yojimbo) released one of the finest works in his storied career. Unlike the samurai films and historical epics he became famous in America for, High and Low is set in the present and gives a sweeping look at modern Japan and how the country looks forward in the post-war world, while trying desperate to retain its ancient values. It's a brilliant story and a beautifully designed film, so how does it fare on Blu-ray?
Just as Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune, The Bad Sleep Well) has raised enough capital to organize a takeover of the shoe company he works for, he gets a telephone call. On the other line, a man claims to have kidnapped his son and demands a ridiculous sum for the boy's safe return. It will bankrupt him, ruining everything he has worked for, but he must pay. When the boy walks in the room, though, and they discover that it's the son of his chauffeur who has been snatched, he doesn't quite think the same way about things anymore.
I don't generally put much stock in parsing out the meanings of film titles, but there is so much about High and Low that refers back to this dichotomy that it begs mention. Gondo is in heaven with the prospect of his takeover, but is quickly thrown into hell with the prospect of his kidnapped son, and further still once he's blackmailed for a child that isn't his own. The relationship between Gondo and Aoki (Yutaka Sada, Throne of Blood) suggests the high and low class of the old feudal system that, in theory, is supplanted by post-war westernization, but in practice, continues as it always has, but under a more corporate based hierarchy. Even Gondo's home sits on top of a hill, where he can look down at the poor and wretched citizens of Osaka, who we see in the second half of the film, after we descend from this overlook.
High and Low is two separate films: the story of the kidnapping and the story of the police tracking down the kidnappers; both sides work brilliantly. The first part is an hour of pure tension. Kurosawa confines the action to Gondo's home as we watch him struggle with his moral dilemma surrounded by people pleading with him to agree to pay, because it's the right thing, and the inner capitalist voice in his head telling him to keep his money, because it's the lucrative thing. Gondo's reticence makes him one of Kurosawa's most despicable heroes, but a very realistic one at the same time. When he finally does break down and agree to pay, it brings us to the thrilling conclusion of this first story: the speeding train sequence. It's our first real moment outside Gondo's home and the most memorable minutes of the film. Afterward, the movie slows back down and moves into the second part, a simple but brilliant police procedural that shifts focus to the police in their hunt for the kidnapper, a true blue scumbag who wallows in the drug and crime infested streets of Osaka. It is a marked change in tone from the first half and could stand as its own film, but they work very well together.
High and Low really shines in the performances and direction, though. Kurosawa uses a lot of his regular actors in various roles, and they go all out for him. Mifune is brilliant as always in the lead, a bottle of barely confined rage with a sniveling why me attitude. His wife is played by Kyoko Kagawa (Madadayo), who appeared many times for the director. While her role is much the same as it always is, she knows the part and plays it perfectly. Aoki, the cops, the kidnapper, and even the kids are all a pleasure to watch. Kurosawa directs them just as well. He creates very long takes and constantly shifts the depth of field. Opening a door, closing the drapes, or simply moving somebody from one part of the room to another alters the dynamic entirely. The different special effects add to the drama and further reinforce the high and low natures of Kurosawa's Osaka. It's a near-perfect film one of the most complete projects of his catalog; every piece is brilliant on its own, but the whole is even greater than the sum of its parts.
Criterion's Blu-ray release of High and Low is not their best work, unfortunately. It's solid enough, but it doesn't reach the heights of some of their other recent Blu-ray discs. The image, surprising to say for the label, is the biggest issue. The detail in the high-def transfer is an upgrade over their more recent SD release, but not a noteworthy one. The grain structure is well maintained, but there is a persistent line running vertically through quite a bit of the film. I'm sure they did what they could, but it's the kind of distraction that I am not used to seeing from the label. The sound, however, is a bigger improvement. The 4-channel stereo mix sounds excellent from start to finish, almost completely noise-free with good separation and very clear dialog and effects. It performs very well.
Even though the whole slate of extras is turned over from their previous release, they are really great. The audio commentary with Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince is extremely detailed even every aspect of the film, from the story to the actors to the background of the production. It's not dynamic or funny talk, but Prince is very knowledgeable and not completely boring; it's certainly worth a listen. A half-hour documentary, Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create, is a fantastic look at the making of the film. It's full of interviews, both recent and old, and archival footage that all paint a really nice picture of the production of this great film. Interviews of Toshirio Mifune and Tsutomu Tamazaki are also good, while some trailers and the requisite essay booklet round out the disc.
High and Low is my favorite non-sword related films in Kurosawa's catalog. The performances are perfect, the suspense is tight, and culturally, it's extremely interesting. The fact that the disc isn't so great is a shame, and I can't recommend the upgrade if you already have Criterion's release, but if you're a first time buyer, the sound is better here, so you might as well buy this one.
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Scales of Justice
* 2.35:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 4.0 Master Audio (Japanese)
Running Time: 143 Minutes
Release Year: 1963
MPAA Rating: Not Rated