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HIGH AND LOW

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Toshiro Mifune, Kyoko Kagawa, Tatsuya Mihashi, Yutaka Sada, Tsutomu Yamazaki
Director:  Akira Kurosawa
Audio:  Dolby Digital 4.0
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio:  Criterion
Features:  See Review
Length:  143 Minutes
Release Date:  July 22, 2008

"Why should you and I hate each other?"

Film ****

Akira Kurosawa, in addition to being one of cinema’s most prolific technical masters, also happens to be one of the medium’s best storytellers.  High and Low, his taut, absorbing tale of cops and robbers, is a perfect example.  To study the film closely is to appreciate craftsmanship at its finest.  But, to simply sit back and watch is to enjoy almost two and a half hours of perfect entertainment.

Though the Japanese title arguably translates better as Heaven and Hell, one can still feel the effects of this duality Kurosawa implants in his film right from the start.  The opening scene, and indeed, most of the early going, takes place in the high rise apartment of a shoe company executive, Gondo (Mifune).  A conflict is established:  his fellow executives dream of a future where shoes are designed to wear out quickly, and therefore, force people to buy more.  Gondo is more old fashioned; he wants to continue making shoes that last.  It is clear he makes an enemy of his colleagues by refusing to go along with them.  Soon, he reveals his own plan:  by mortgaging everything he owns, he plans to buy a majority share of his company’s stock and take over.

Those plans are interrupted when a kidnapper intervenes.  This criminal, whom we do not see, has attempted to take Gondo’s son, but mistakenly ended up with the son of his chauffer. He demands a ransom of 30 million yen, much to the surprise of the police on the case, who point out the average ransom demand is six figures, or in extreme cases, one or two million.  They suspect that the plot is not an attempt to make money, but to ruin Gondo, who will lose everything if he pays.  Gondo has a moral dilemma to face:  he would have willingly paid the money for his own child; does he sacrifice his and his family’s futures to save the life of an employee’s?

The second part of the film involves the crime and the investigation, which is as intriguing and thrilling as any I’ve ever seen.  A nice twist is how it focuses entirely on the crime from the point of view of the victims and the police.   Unlike most films of this genre, we do not know nor see who the criminal is until the final stretch.  Without this knowledge, Kurosawa commands our attention on the events at hand.  We see the events of the investigation unfold:  how the clues are put together, how logic and deduction are used to eliminate certain scenarios, and how even the grateful but guilt stricken chauffer aids in putting the pieces together.

The final stretch involves the confrontation, and concludes with a brilliant final on-screen resolution.  Motives are revealed, and they are much different from the ones we were led to suspect.  If Gondo’s high rise represents Heaven, with its amazing, expansive view and feel at nighttime of being among the stars, the police end up in Hell chasing their suspect:  a hot, sweltering ground level world where loud music blares and the drug addicts cluster like lost souls in the river Styx.

By engrossing his audience in the story, Kurosawa is free to fill his picture with his distinct visual trademarks without distraction.  He is an absolute master when it comes to incorporating ingenious camerawork in a way that is practically devoid of self-awareness.  Most directors deliberately call attention to the way their camera movies.  With Kurosawa, the work is subtle but brilliant.  His use of deep-focus photography is unequalled in cinema, creating scenes of remarkable depth and using spatial relationships between objects and actors to quietly lead the eye further and further into the scene.  Movement is often used to bisect the composition and add a sense of fluidity.

Most notable, perhaps, is the movement of the camera on a vertical axis, which not only lends emphasis to the high and low mentioned in the title, but constantly changes the dynamics and framing of scenes.   Kurosawa was a careful and thoughtful planner when it came to film construction:  no single frame in any of his pictures came about by accident.  Each detail was meticulously conceived…yet for all the work and thinking behind them, his artistry still only exists to serve the story, and never itself.

Toshiro Mifune was one of Japan’s most noted character actors, and fans of Seven Samurai might not even recognize him at first as the clean shaven, conservative and morally torn Gondo…consider it a testament to his chameleon-like skill.  It’s a performance that keeps you thinking about the character, even during the long investigative periods when he’s not on screen.

Consider all of these aspects, if you will, but whether you choose to carefully scrutinize the film or not, High and Low will still deliver for its storytelling and dynamic entertainment value.  It’s a fascinating, intricate look at the execution and solving of a masterfully conceived crime, a moral dilemma that keeps the story driving forward, and a stark social commentary for an exclamation point.

Video ***

This widescreen offering from Criterion is terrific, maintaining the integrity of Kurosawa’s beautiful black and white photography (and one surprising use of color!).  Blacks aren’t quite as deep and pure as normal, but very close, and the overall range of grayscale is very satisfying.  Contrast is good, and darker images play out cleanly with no evidence of grain, and only rare instances of noticeable wear and tear on the print.

Audio ***

This is a particularly good but unusual 4.0 soundtrack, with good dialogue clarity and not much in the way of distracting background noise or hiss.  Dynamic range is quite good, particularly near the end when loud rock and roll strangely blares out from your center speaker.  Effects throughout lend punch to the audio…the final “curtain” rings with a sound that punctuates the finality.

Features ****

Criterion's original release didn't offer anything in the way of extras, but this two disc set easily corrects that.  The first disc, in addition to the movie, has a detailed and informative commentary track from Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince.

The second disc contains a 37 minute excerpt from "It Is Wonderful To Create" focusing on the making of this movie, plus a rare video interview with Toshiro Mifune (it gives you chills if you're a fan), a new video interview with actor Tsutomu Tamazaki, and the U.S. and Japanese trailers.  Rounding out is a new booklet with essays and pictures.

Summary:

Call it film noir, call it a morality play, call it a good old fashioned cops and robbers story…in the hands of the master, Akira Kurosawa, High and Low is an absorbing, intelligent crime story made even greater by his sense of cinematic style.  Whether you’re a casual fan or a die hard student, this is a movie that delivers all the entertainment value you could want for two and a half hours.  Recommended.

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