Akira Kurosawa, meet Judge Ryan Keefer. Judge Ryan Keefer, prepare to have your mind blown by Akira Kurosawa.
"Why should you and I hate each other?"
"I don't know. I'm not interested in self-analysis. I do know my room was so cold in winter and so hot in summer I couldn't sleep. Your house looked like heaven, high up there. That's how I began to hate you."
Aside from the early works of the Japanese legend, Akira Kurosawa's films have all been given the royal treatment from the folks at Criterion, save for a barebones version of High and Low, which was released back in 1998. In an attempt to make up for old sins, Criterion re-visits the film, gives it a shiny new anamorphic transfer and multi-channel sound, and a few extras to boot. Let's pop the hood and check it out, shall we?
Facts of the Case
Based on the novel King's Ransom by Ed McBain, the film is told almost as separate halves; Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune, Seven Samurai) is a successful businessman of a shoe company that has just taken over a majority share of the company he works for, but he is shattered to find out that his son has been kidnapped and held for 30 million yen, which would essentially bankrupt Gondo and force him out of his company. It's discovered, almost immediately, that it's not Gondo's son, but the son of his driver. All of the sudden, Gondo doesn't feel so inclined to pay the ransom. He eventually changes his mind and pays the ransom to set the other child free, so now the quest becomes to recover the money, which transitions us to the second half of the film. The Chief Detective of the case Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai, Ran) makes every attempt to find the money and the man responsible for the kidnapping, and the evidence leads to a medical intern named Takeuchi (Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kagemusha).
I'd like to indulge for a second if I might. I'm flattered and honored to review this title, my first Kurosawa/Criterion title for you loyal Verdict readers. So, in the interest of full disclosure, know that I've got the other Kurosawa Criterions in the library, and I am a fan, albeit a little peripherally. I'll try to do this as much justice for you (pardon the pun) as I can.
I'm struck by just how much morality and vivid imagery Kurosawa employs in the source material that is more on the police procedural side of things. As many of you know, the film's Japanese title translates out to Heaven and Hell, and Gondo's house overlooking Yokohoma certainly conveys this image rather well. Most of what occurs within the four walls of Gondo's house unfolds on virtually static shots. You see Gondo, his wife or Tokura through most of the film without many cuts, and one could almost say that, when shooting the first portion of the film in the house as it was, Kurosawa was almost shooting a stage play. Watching Gondo's driver Aoki (Yutaka Sada, Red Beard) stand virtually still in one scene, head down, face wearing a mask of shame and suffering, was among several quietly heartbreaking scenes for me. The environment dictates the stoicism, yet you can't help but understand the pain Aoki is going through. And yet when it comes to the film, Kurosawa keeps everyone in frame and scene. Where's Aoki going to go? What's he going to do? So yeah, it's only natural that he would stay near the phone to find out anything he could about his son, even as Gondo goes back and forth on whether to pay Takeuchi.
Speaking of imagery earlier, after Aoki's son is returned and the ransom is paid, we then take a trip to hell, and Kurosawa again does a brilliant job of illustration. Rivers have trash floating on the top, Takeuchi's dwelling, which he says to Gondo is "hot as hell," is also cramped and dilapidated, and in the second half of the film when Tokura is out trying to capture him, a sequence through a back alley where drug addicts are active is haunting. The addicts look like zombies from a Romero film. But it's done for a purpose, to convey the environment and the subtle anti-drug vision as well. Takeuchi walks though those streets wearing mirrored sunglasses, giving the viewer the impression of perhaps a soulless individual. Let's not forget, that man walking the seedy parts of town at night helps the viewer understand that they probably know someone like this, so there's an identifiable factor in play that makes things a little more direct.
The end scene is amazing in how resonant it plays out. Takeuchi has been captured and sentenced to death and has requested that Gondo come to see him, his first words to anyone of note. Watching each character speak through the glass, with the reflection of the other clearly visible, is another symbolic statement of sorts. To quote Donald Richie in The Films of Akira Kurosawa, "good and evil are made to coincide; they are made identical." Gondo might want to know what motivated Takeuchi to do what he did, but he's never going to find out. Takeuchi's fate might be environmentally caused, and in Gondo he finds a perfect outlet for redemption, but Gondo should also realize that if he did not make the choices he did as a young man, there but for the grace of God he could have went.
Technically, the fact that Criterion has given High and Low an anamorphic presentation is a blessing. No longer possessing the original release, I couldn't do a comparison per se, but the new transfer looks a touch sharper than the original, and the full composition of Kurosawa's shots really gets a chance to show itself off. Criterion touts the "original four-track surround sound" as being used on this release, and it's a subtle track that envelops you in sound during the bullet train sequence and during the second half of the film when occasionally there are musical notes. The dialogue is firmly in the center channel without any waving, and there's not too much hiss to hear when playing the disc. I liked what Criterion did here.
And speaking of Criterion, the extras aren't too bad, and looking at the whole product, features interviews and recollections from the cast and crew, either in new or archived footage, so that's a nice achievement. Kicking things off is a commentary with Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior's Cinema, the excellent book discussing the life and work of Kurosawa. Prince usually comes prepared, reading from a script apparently, and he brings a whole treasure trove of information about the film. While he's very technical at times, discussing breakdown of shots and scenes, and examining character motivations and symbolism, he also gets into other aspects, such as any aspects of the film that might be loyal to the book. The historical context of Japan's laws prosecuting kidnappers is discussed, along with Kurosawa's personal motivation to make the film. Overall this is another great track from Prince. From there, things move onto the second disc, and the documentary series on Kurosawa's life and works, titled "It Is Wonderful To Create" returns for another installment concentrating on High and Low. Surviving cast and crew members recall the production, and there's some detailed examinations of some of the shots in the film (the shot of the Yokohama houses at night was lit by over 6,000 miniature bulbs), and Kurosawa's editing process is discussed in detail. The series is always fascinating, and this portion is no exception. From there, a half-hour interview with Mifune from a 1981 Japanese show is included, where Mifune is promoting the premiere of Shogun on Japanese television. He also talks about films coming up, and his thoughts on American productions in Japan. His military experience is brought up, and he's still emotional about his friends who didn't come home. The interviewer was a little bit pathetic, coming across as a bit of an Asian Dinah Shore, but the interview is fascinating and worth viewing. In addition to this, Yamazaki provides a new interview for the disc, where he talks about working with Kurosawa, and what he thought Kurosawa was looking for in his role. He does remember some on-set information, and the other actors on the film, including driving home with Mifune. It's a nice nostalgia trip with the actor. The Japanese and American trailers, and a teaser are included to complete the disc. The Japanese trailer includes an additional scene with Gondo and Takura after the film's ending, so that is nice to have here as well from a completist point of view.
High and Low might be based on a work that reminds many of Law and Order, but one of cinema's great creators takes the story and makes it a story of morality, using strong acting performances and blurring the line between good and bad rather slyly and effectively. Technically, the disc is worth the double-dip for the anamorphic transfer alone, but the fact there is a second disc of robust supplements makes this a slam-dunk rebuy and well worth adding to your collection.
Criterion took the sentence handed down by Judge Erick Harper and put it to good use; the parties are acquitted on all charges.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Kurosawa Scholar Stephen Prince
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