High and Low (The Criterion Collection) Review

When most people think of films by Akira Kurosawa, their minds jump to Rashomon, Yojimbo, Ran, Sanjuro and others which take place in the golden age of the Samurai. It’s not an unjustified generalization, as he did make quite a few and they’re often held up as the iconic films of his career. But the argument could be made that the films where he strayed outside of feudal Japan into the modern era of business, crime, and bureaucracy are just as deserving of the accolades. A perfect example is High and Low, the tale of a kidnapper’s ransom against a wealthy man’s morals where ethical quandaries fly left and right as a criminal investigation ensues. Criterion Collection’s Blu-ray release of Kurosawa’s crime masterpiece gives the film a nice polish and enough supplementary material with its lead, Toshiro Mifune, and Kurosawa himself to make it an essential part of a complete Kurosawa library.

On the eve of a business masterstroke by Kingo Gondo (Mifune), a powerful executive at National Shoes, the son of his chauffeur is kidnapped. Even though the kidnapper realizes he’s nabbed the wrong boy, he poses the ransom to Gondo, threatening to kill the child if Gondo doesn’t pay 30 million yen, a chunk of the money he’s mortgaged his life to acquire and was about to use to buy controlling stake in National Shoes to save his future. Once the boy is recovered, the criminal investigation begins as local police profile the kidnapper and track him down using a string of clues that could break off at any turn.

High and Low has two distinct halves: a simmering chamber drama and a stirring police procedural, and ne’er the twain shall meet. It genuinely is two halves, with the first hour devoted to the setup of the ransom and the mounting tensions between Gondo, his wife (Kyoko Kagawa), and his chauffeur, Aoki (Yutaka Sada), as Kingo weighs his two choices: continue with his business deal and live with the guilt or pay the ransom, thus risking his family’s financial stability with the chance that the money is recovered if the kidnapper is caught. It’s here that Kurosawa does an ethical line dance, with everyone around Gondo proffering up their own take on his moral crisis. Could his business survive the ill will that letting an innocent child die would bring? Is his family’s ability to live in a luxurious house atop a hill more important than the life of an innocent child? Is every human being obligated to pay the ransom of a lunatic if it means it could save the life of another? Or is it just the ones with the monetary means?

When Kurosawa shifts into his crime drama, he takes the audience deep into the process and keeps them in the story as Chief Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai) goes through the investigations into each possible lead. Kurosawa succeeds in making the police force a collection of actual characters instead of blank-faced extras that most films just use to fill the frame. Considering how carefully Kurosawa crafts each frame, it’s not surprising then that he opts to make the police more than just faces with this scene. As the layout of the clues continues, the room is less just a crowded hall and more a genuine collection of pivotal characters whose roles you’re no following as you’ve seen their significance firsthand. Even after that scene, the remainder of the investigation bounces between Chief Detective Bos’n (Kenjiro Ishiyama) and the officers in plainclothes tasked with trailing the suspect. Kurosawa carries off the investigation in a riveting fashion that never feels routine or embellished.

I’d be remiss not to mention the commentary on the amoral nature of the corporate world, which Kurosawa carries over here from previous films Ikiru and The Bad Sleep Well, or the criticism of social class. The film starts with a very sharply worded conversation between Gondo and three of his associates whose scheme to overthrow the aging chairman of National Shoes hits a wall as Gondo reveals he doesn’t agree with their profit-centric approach nor the older executives outdated notions. This corporate squabble moves to the background for the most of the story, but it never disappears entirely as the three schemers and National Shoes attract negative press for their less than sympathetic treatment of Gondo, whom the press revere as a hero for his selfless handling of the ransom case.

Furthermore, Kurosawa uses the Gondo’s aristocracy as a primary motivator for the kidnapper, and continues pounding the issue from different sides as various characters comment on the house’s placement atop the hill, comparing it to the heavens. At which point, you can almost sympathize: if capable, who wouldn’t want to deal a blow against a God living comfortably on high as the mortals (the working class) toil about in the stench of fish offal exacerbated by a relentless heat? The idea of resenting an upper class for the amenities they enjoy as those around them suffer is a common one, and stands as the foundation of a great many revolutions. Whether or not you could call a kidnapping a form of revolution is questionable, but rebellion? Most certainly.

The 30-minute documentary about the creation of High and Low, “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create”, in the supplementary materials, details Kurosawa’s filming process and makes special notice to point out the three camera setup he used in the Gondo household. It allows for some dynamic compositions that can be described as no less than art. Not only is High and Low a fantastic thriller, but it’s one of the best filmed entries in the genre you may ever see, and Criterion Collection’s remastering of the film makes the Blu-ray copy easily the best presentation of the film I’ve ever witnessed (having watched it on both VHS and DVD beforehand), and perhaps one of the better looking Kurosawa films.

There is one qualm to be had, and it has to do with the subtitles which are nearly impossible to read in the first half which takes almost exclusively within the well-lit Gondo home filled with lots of white surfaces. The subtitles consequently get lost when set against them and it’s a genuine struggle to make them out as the businessmen, family, and detectives talk at a quick pace.

Blu-ray Bonus Features

The aforementioned documentary about Kurosawa’s filming methods and retrospective on High and Low all but demands your attention. It’s a great little feature and answers a lot of technical questions you’ll have after watching it. The two other primary video featurettes are separate interviews with Toshiro Mifune and Tsutomu Yamazaki, with each discussing the film, but mostly working with Kurosawa. Mifune’s even discusses the original television miniseries Shogun which he’d just finished working on. The audio commentary courtesy of Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince is less than spectacular, but still quite interesting. Additionally, two written pieces on the film can be found in the liner booklet: the first is an essay on the influences of Western culture in the works of Akira Kurosawa, especially as it pertains to High and Low; the second is an on-set account of the filming of High and Low by Donald Richie.

"High and Low (The Criterion Collection)" is on sale July 26, 2011 and is not rated. Crime, Drama, Thriller. Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Written by Hideo Oguni & Ryuzo Kikushima & Eijirô Hisaita & Akira Kurosawa (screenplay) and Evan Hunter (novel). Starring Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Kenjiro Ishiyama, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Kyoko Kagawa.

Aug
04
2011
Lex Walker • Editor

He's a TV junkie with a penchant for watching the same movie six times in one sitting. If you really want to understand him you need to have grown up on Sgt. Bilko, Alien, Jurassic Park and Five Easy Pieces playing in an infinite loop. Recommend something to him - he'll watch it.

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