It's interesting to make fortunate men unfortunate.
Another collaboration between director Akira Kurosawa and his favorite actor, Toshirô Mifune, comes to us from the fine folks at the Criterion Collection.
Facts of the Case
Kingo Gondo (Mifune—Seven Samurai, Yojimbo, The Hidden Fortress) is the consummate businessman, a deal-maker at the top of his game. He is one of the top executives at the National Shoe Corporation. He and a group of his associates disagree with the current management's course of action and want to oust "The Old Man" at the next shareholders' meeting. But if they are going to do so, they need Gondo's help and his shares behind them. Their plan is to make highly fashionable, highly disposable shoes. Gondo refuses; he wants to make fashionable shoes, but he also loves the company and will not put its name on junk. Unbeknownst to the other, he has secretly been increasing his percentage of ownership in the company over the past few years, and is now in a position to pull off a leveraged takeover on his own. He has mortgaged everything he owns to the hilt to pull it off, but if he succeeds, there will be no stopping him and he will remake the company in his own image.
All talk of capitalistic conquest is abandoned after a phone call announces that Gondo's son, Jun, has been kidnapped and that an astronomical ransom of 30 million yen will be required to set him free. Jun soon runs into the house, safe and sound, but those assembled are hit with a horrible realization: the kidnapper has taken Shinichi, the son of Gondo's chauffeur Aoki, by mistake. The kidnapper calls again and acknowledges the mistake, but persists in his demand for the outrageous ransom. At first Gondo refuses; why should he pay that much for someone else's son? His resolution of this moral dilemma and the resulting quest for justice fuel the remainder of the film.
The Japanese title of this film, Tengoku to jigoku translates more literally into English as "Heaven and Hell." And so it is for those who occupy the story. The entire movie is a collection of dualities, of opposites contrasting. Gondo's shining home, on a hill overlooking the city, indeed seems like a vision of Heaven to those who live in the run-down neighborhoods below. Like the Biblical parable of Lazarus and the rich man, those in "Hell" wail and mourn and drive themselves mad with wanting the smallest part of what they see those in "Heaven" enjoying. The bright, airy neatness of Gondo's home contrasts with the squalor in the streets below, especially the writhing, tormented souls who inhabit "Dope Alley." One could also potentially draw some religious parallels as Gondo, living in his "Heavenly" home, makes a huge sacrifice to save someone, a child not even his own son, from the clutches of one of the denizens of "Hell."
It may be said that this duality carries as far as the structure of the film itself. High and Low seems at times to be two separate films grafted together. The first half is an intense psychological drama that focuses on Gondo's internal struggles with his conscience as he debates whether or not to pay the ransom for Aoki's son. It reaches its climax with an exciting sequence on one of Japan's famous bullet trains, where he makes the ransom drop per the kidnapper's meticulous instructions. The rest of the film, the "other" movie, is a police procedural that would not feel out of place on an episode of CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. Once the film shifts its focus to the police manhunt Mifune's character is relegated to the background, as a special detachment of cops led by Inspector Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai—Kagemusha, Ran, Return from the River Kwai) use all their skills and resources to catch the kidnapper.
Kurosawa is the undisputed master of the widescreen frame, using it to its fullest potential. He frames shots expertly, using the full frame from edge to edge. Oftentimes this requires some fairly intricate choreography, especially in the long takes he uses so often. Another area in which Kurosawa's work is unparalleled is the use of distances and spatial relationships to highlight the relationships among his characters. For the early part of the film, Mifune dominates the frame in every shot, his immaculate white shirt and cardigan standing out luminously amongst the other players. Kurosawa frames him carefully; Mifune is always in the center, in the foreground, always the biggest physical presence on the screen. In doing this, the director is showing us a man indisputably in charge of his world, master of his destiny. His image dwarfs the other actors on the screen, showing him as superior. Indeed, as event bear out, he is superior to them, more honorable in business, in private life, and in the kidnap crisis than any one of them could be. As Gondo, his wife, and the police debate the proper course of action we see even more telling shot compositions. As Gondo is torn between two courses of action, he is also physically placed between the police on one side, his wife and the chauffeur on the other. Once he agrees to a course of action, he no longer dominates the frame. He is almost brushed aside by the police as they pursue the kidnapper. The later scenes, focusing exclusively on the investigation, show the police working as a team in a collaborative effort; no one person dominates the frame in these scenes.
Mifune, as always, is excellent in his portrayal of Gondo. An honest man, a self-made man, trying to balance his own grubby self-interest against the demands of honor and decency, Gondo is not so far removed from some of Mifune's samurai roles as one might expect. Mifune shows us a man torn apart for a time by internal conflict, and then unshakably resolute once he decides on a course of action. Tatsuya Nakadai is very good as Inspector Tokura; in many ways he becomes the central figure once the focus changes from Gondo's home to the police investigation. He plays the perfect cop, exuding competence and confidence, and able to inspire the same in the men he works with and the public he protects. Tsutomu Yamazaki (Kagemusha) also gives a good performance as the kidnapper, although he has limited screen time. His final scenes opposite Mifune as a man trying, and failing, to cover up his fear with defiance are explosive.
High and Low is an older Criterion Collection release, and has been available on the market since 1998. The film is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, unfortunately in a non-anamorphic letterbox transfer. The transfer is quite sharp and bright, but is not without its flaws. The image through much of the film is excellent, with crisp, solid blacks and clean whites, and excellent reproduction of detail. Unfortunately, the image is not consistently good, and there are a number of scenes where both black and white levels appear oversaturated. In some early scenes the blacks are so heavily oversaturated that they bleed noticeably, leading to a black, smudged halo of darkness around Mifune's head. Fine textures are harmed by this as well. In some scenes we see excellent detail, with every hair on an actor's head razor sharp; within a few seconds, we may see the same actor with what looks like a black football helmet instead of hair. In many scenes whites are too bright; again in early scenes we see Mifune's shirt and cardigan shining like the sun and in the process blending together so that the distinction between the shirt and sweater blurs away. The background textures are very often crawling with grain and digital artifacting. Mifune's image is often beset with terrible aliasing and some edge enhancement/ringing artifacts. I also noted some very bad instances of moiré problems, and some very bad flickering and strobing as Gondo looks out the windows of his home towards the village below.
The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono. The main sound in this film is dialogue; music is conspicuous by its almost total absence, and there are few sound effects. The audio track is nicely mixed and the dialogue comes through pleasantly. However, there is an almost constant low hiss under the audio at all times, which occasionally rises into a very noticeable, very irritating buzz. In fairness, this happens in only a very small portion of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The dual structure of the film does have its flaws. The emotional tension and conflict that is so crucial to telling a good story is heavily frontloaded; by the time we reach the police investigation the momentum falls flatter than an episode of Dragnet. This is alleviated somewhat by an epilogue where Gondo meets the kidnapper face to face, which provides for some of the best acting in the film. Still, even this scene feels a bit artificial and contrived, and doesn't make up for the long second act spent mostly at police headquarters. The actual details of the investigation are a bit farfetched at times as well, and require more than one revelation or fortuitous coincidence that seems just a little to good to be true. It seems that even Kurosawa stumbled a bit once in a while; the police scenes are often long strings of expository material dumped on the audience in the form of police briefings and press conferences. They are still expertly shot, but lack the dynamic energy that he usually brings to his films. This is at least partly due to the script, but Kurosawa was one of a handful of writers involved there as well, so he must share the blame.
The obvious glaring fault with the DVD is the complete lack of special features. Not a trailer, not a Kurosawa or Mifune filmography, not even one of those cheesy "Recommendations" sections that other studios do. A bare-bones disc is a bare-bones disc, even if it does come from Criterion. This is especially true considering the steep list price of $39.95.
High and Low is a departure from Kurosawa's samurai epics that Western audiences know so well. As it is a study in duality, it seems fitting to evaluate it as two separate films. The first section is a highly charged drama dealing with the kidnapping and Gondo's wrenching dilemma. This part of the film is nothing short of gripping. The second section, comprising about 60 percent of the running time, loses some of the energy generated by the first section and turns into a fairly dry police procedural, punctuated with some fascinating visuals of the tormented souls among whom the kidnapper dwells. In short, this very skillful film suffers from some basic pacing and script problems. Fans of Kurosawa will definitely want to give this a rental, but only the diehards need consider purchasing it at such an exorbitant price.
High and Low and those involved in its production are all found Not Guilty and released with the thanks of the court. Criterion is guilty of giving us an overpriced disc with no special features, and a video and audio presentation that does not live up to their usually impeccable standards.
We stand adjourned.
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