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High and Low
(Tengoku to jigoku)
Director: Akira Kurosawa
Screenplay: Eijirô Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni (based on the novel King’s Ransom by Ed McBain)
Stars: Toshirô Mifune (Kingo Gondo), Tatsuya Nakadai (Chief Detective Tokura), Kyôko Kagawa (Reiko Gondo), Tatsuya Mihashi (Kawanishi), Isao Kimura (Detective Arai), Kenjiro Ishiyama (Chief Detective Bos’n Taguchi), Takeshi Katô (Detective Nakao), Takashi Shimura (Chief of Investigation Section), Jun Tazaki (Kamiya), Nobuo Nakamura (Ishimaru), Yûnosuke Itô (Baba), Tsutomu Yamazaki (Ginjirô Takeuchi)
MPAA Rating: NR
Year of Release: 1963
Country: Japan
High and Low
High and Low Following his breakthrough success with Rashomon in 1950, the film that literally opened the rest of the world’s eyes to Japanese cinema, Akira Kurosawa spent most of the next two decades making jida-geki, or dramatic films set in the past, which included his long string of samurai films such as Seven Samurai (1954) and Yojimbo (1961). However, throughout this period he also made a handful of gendai-geki--dramatic films set in contemporary Japan. In each of these, Kurosawa explored pertinent moral and social issues, including what it means to live (1952’s Ikiru), the fear of nuclear annihilation (1955’s I Live in Fear), and corporate malfeasance (1958’s The Bad Sleep Well).

While High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku) fits in neatly with those other films, it also stands out in that it is first and foremost an expertly crafted mystery thriller whose story of a kidnapping and its aftermath is woven through with a particularly acute portrait of the decay of modern Japan. The idea of morality and honor under fire in postwar Japanese society was a constant in Kurosawa’s gendai-geki films, but never had it been quite so vile and chaotic as we see here, especially in the film’s final third, which takes place primarily in the slums of Yokohama with its pop music clubs, flop houses, and alleyways filled with heroin addicts. Kurosawa had done something similar in Stray Dog (1949), a police procedural that was as much about the sordid nature of the postwar criminal underworld as it was about its central mystery, but in High and Low it takes on an even stronger and tighter fever pitch. Interestingly, the film was adapted from King’s Ransom, a novel in the pulpy “87th Precinct” series by Ed McBain (a pseudonym for Evan Hunter), which marks High and Low as the only Kurosawa film explicitly based on an American book.

In his second-to-last collaboration with Kurosawa, Toshirô Mifune plays Kingo Gondo, a wealthy industrialist who has made his fortune running the factories of the National Shoe Corporation. In the film’s opening sequence he rebukes an offer from three corporate executives who want him to join them in a buy-out, not because he doesn’t desire control of the company, but because he is disgusted by their narrow and greedy profit-over-quality mentality. Gondo may be wealthy (which is visualized in his modernist mansion on a bluff that overlooks the much poorer neighborhoods below), but he has earned his riches by working his way up the ladder and never capitulating to easy money over solid craftsmanship. In other words, there is honor in what he does, even if it is misunderstood by those lower on the socioeconomic ladder.

The story proper is set in motion when Gondo receives a phone call demanding a ransom of 30 million yen to return his kidnapped son. Paying the ransom will effectively run him because he has mortgaged everything he owns in a bid to gain control of National Shoe. As it turns out, it is not his son who has been kidnapped, but rather his meek chauffeur’s, but no matter; the kidnapper demands the money anyway or else he will kill the boy. Thus, Gondo is immediately thrust into a prickly moral situation: If he pays the ransom for another man’s child, he will be financially ruined; if he doesn’t, he will quite possibly have blood on his hands. In essence, the film sets up the same question that was at the heart of Ikiru, except in more direct, literal terms: What is a human life worth?

As a thriller, High and Low is fascinating in the way it is structured into three acts, each of which shifts focus to a different character and creates a unique form of tension and suspense. The first act, in which the child is kidnapped, gnaws at our nerves with questions of how the kidnapping will go down. Will Gondo capitulate and pay? If so, will the boy be released safely? Will the switch go down according to plan, or is there a betrayal afoot?

That act then naturally bleeds over to the question of who the kidnapper(s) are and whether or not they will be caught. There are many possible suspects, including the National Shoe executives, who would benefit from Gondo’s financial ruin, and Kawanishi (Tatsuya Mihashi), Gondo’s secretary who ends up betraying him in favor of ensuring his own financial stability. At this point in the film, Gondo becomes a secondary character and the police force, embodied primarily by Chief Detective Tokura (Tatsuya Nakadai), steps to the fore, diligently working through the evidence and following up on every possible lead. It is in this second act that Kurosawa throws us for a loop by showing us the kidnapper, albeit not in much detail, well before the police know his identity. Thus, while we have seen his face, we don’t know who he is.

The third act, then, hinges on the question of motive. Once the kidnapper has been identified, the police sit back and set up a trap to ensure that he is put away with the maximum penalty, but our minds are reeling with the question of “Why?” Who is this person and what is the motivation for such a carefully plotted and purposefully cruel crime? Having seen Gondo as an essentially decent man (he is most explicitly humanized when we see him, financially destroyed, maintaining his dignity by mowing his yard in the sweltering heat), it is hard to imagine who would despise him so thoroughly. Yet, when we see Gondo’s home from different perspectives, high atop the hill like a fortified castle, it is not hard to understand what he might represent to those less fortunate.

And this, ultimately, is what High and Low is really about. The film’s thriller elements are honed to a razor-sharp edge and work to draw you deep into the characters’ various dilemmas, but as its title suggests, society’s gaps between the have’s and the have-not’s is the film’s primary subject. The literal meaning of the Japanese title Tengoku to jigoku is Heaven and Hell, which suggests just how vast Kurosawa sees the gap between the privileged and the suffering. However, the fact that Gondo, the film’s chief representative of the privileged elite, is an honorable and decent man who earned his position with hard work and honesty and literally sacrifices everything for someone else suggests that Kurosawa is not seeing in black and white terms. He certainly gives us extremes on both ends (the self-serving National Shoe executives on one end and a writhing, pathetic mass of junkies on the other), but High and Low sticks to your gut as social commentary because it shows us the vast expanse of gray in-between.

High and Low Criterion Collection DVD

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
AnamorphicYes
Audio Japanese Dolby Digital 4.0 surround
Subtitles English
Supplements
  • Audio commentary by film scholar Stephen Prince
  • Making-of documentary from the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create (37 min.)
  • Video interview with actor Toshiro Mifune, conducted by TV talk-show host Tetsuko Kuroyanagi
  • Video interview with actor Tsutomu Yamazaki
  • U.S. and Japanese theatrical trailers
  • Insert booklet featuring a new essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and an on-set account by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie
  • DistributorThe Criterion Collection
    SRP$39.95
    Release DateJuly 22, 2008

    VIDEO & AUDIO
    This new two-disc edition of High and Low replaces Criterion’s original release, which was one of their earliest DVDs. And, while that transfer was not bad, it is still nice to have an upgrade on this excellent film. The new high-definition transfer, which was taken from a 35mm fine-grain master positive (the film’s one color shot was taken from a 35mm interpositive), improves on the original transfer in two crucial ways: It is now anamorphic, thus generating significantly more information in the image, and it is better framed, as the original Criterion DVD was somewhat cropped. Comparisons between the two immediately reveal that the new transfer is brighter, with stronger contrast and detail. The original transfer was somewhat grayish, but now the contrast is so strong that whites appear to be almost blown out in some shots. The heavier black levels look better though, and the improved detail is particularly noticeable in the close-ups. Digital restoration has also removed a lot of the dirt, debris, and signs of age that were apparent on the previous disc. And, while the original Criterion disc featured a monaural soundtrack, this new disc transferred its soundtrack from the original four-track stems, thus preserving the intended four-track stereo sound.
    SUPPLEMENTS
    The excellent screen-specific audio commentary features the familiar voice of film scholar Stephen Prince, author of The Warrior’s Camera: The Cinema of Akira Kurosawa, who has also contributed commentaries to Criterion’s Red Beard (1964) and Ran (1985) DVDs, among others. Prince’s analysis is sharp and thoughtful and will certainly make watching the film a richer and deeper experience. As on so many of Criterion’s Kurosawa discs, this one includes an episode from the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create about the making of the film. Running about 37 minutes, it features interviews with Kurosawa; actors Tatsuya Nakadai, Kyoko Kagawa, Takeshi Kato, and Tatsuya Mihashi; script supervisor Teruyo Nogami; and cameramen Takao Saito and Masaharu Ueda. As with other episodes of this series, one of the most intriguing parts is getting to see Kurosawa’s original script pages and storyboards, which offers a great deal of insight into his creative process. Also included on the second disc is a half-hour television interview with actor Toshiro Mifune, conducted by TV talk-show host Tetsuko Kuroyanagi in 1981. There is also a new, 19-minute interview with actor Tsutomu Yamazaki, who discusses his many collaborations with Kurosawa. Finally, there is a Japanese theatrical and teaser trailer, as well as the original U.S. release trailer. The insert booklet featuring a new essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and an on-set account by Japanese film scholar Donald Richie.

    Overall Rating: (4)

    Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick

    All images copyright © The Criterion Collection


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