High above the humid, teeming Japanese city of Yokohama sits the slick, contemporary, Western-style home of wealthy industrialist Kingo Gondo (Toshiro Mifune). During an uncomfortable meeting with a group of his executives, it becomes clear that the integrity at their National Shoe Company is deteriorating — Gondo’s partners want to produce cheaper shoes to maximize profits. When the executives threaten to pool their percentages and control his interests, Gondo throws them out and then plays his trump card: he’ll buy out the others’ shares in the company with his life savings. As he arranges the delivery of a staggering cash payment, the telephone rings, and the caller explains he has kidnapped Gondo’s young son, Jun (Toshio Egi), and wants a hefty ransom. Shocked, Gondo realizes the money he was about to use to take control of his company must now be used to pay the kidnapper.
A moment later, young Jun walks into the room, and Gondo and his wife, Reiko (Kyoko Kagawa), realize the kidnapper has actually abducted Shinichi, the son of Gondo’s longtime chauffeur, Aoki (Yutaka Sada), by mistake. Later, as the police try to record and trace another call from the kidnapper, Gondo must decide whether to risk financial ruin by paying the ransom. Ultimately, he agrees to do so, and this forces him out of the lap of luxury and into the dangerous streets of Yokohama.
Like most of legendary director Akira Kurosawa’s films, High and Low has a distinctive tone and style and is based on previously written material. Instead of drawing upon the highbrow sources he had tapped in the past, Kurosawa embraced a 1959 American pulp novel by Ed McBain titled King’s Ransom. Intrigued by the novel’s kidnapping confusion and class-conscious ethical dilemma, Kurosawa embarked on what would be his most “modern” project; he decided to build several precise sets and use the anamorphic Tohoscope process. To make this meticulously designed thriller, he called upon two cinematographers and frequent collaborators, Asakazu Nakai (Seven Samurai) and Takao Saito (Sanjuro).
As Kurosawa had done a few times in the past, he insisted on using two cameras to capture the film’s numerous location and studio sets as carefully as he had designed them. The film’s first hour takes place in Gondo’s sleek home, much of which was shot on an intricately designed set to match the location. Nakai was in charge of the A-camera work, making extensive use of dollies, often from low angles, and Saito was in charge of the B camera, which was set on a crane for fluid, up-and-down motion. When the film famously jumps aboard a moving train, both cinematographers and numerous operators were assigned to nine different cameras to capture the frantic energy needed for the sequence. Nakai and Saito’s collaboration was so successful that they were reteamed twice more, on Kurosawa’s Red Beard (1965) and Ran (1985).
In 1998, High and Low became one of The Criterion Collection’s earliest DVD releases, and that edition was a bare-bones, nonanamorphic presentation supplemented with only a print essay by film critic Chuck Stephens. That image transfer was fine for its time, but with this new two-disc edition, Criterion has taken advantage of emerging technologies to present a sharpened, digitally scrubbed monochromatic image that brings new levels of clarity to the frame. The grayscale in this transfer appears more accurate, and the overall image is crisper and more film-like, with better contrasts and more visible depth of field. The audio, presented in digital 4.0 surround stereo, is clean, with much of the playback occurring across the front left, center and right channels as appropriate.
Accompanying the feature on disc one is an excellent feature-length commentary by Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince. Disc two presents a 37-minute documentary segment that features interviews with some of the principal cast and crew, including Saito. Also included is a 20-minute interview with actor Tsutomu Yamazaki, who plays the kidnapper; a 27-minute TV talk-show interview with Mifune from 1981; three theatrical trailers; and print essays by film scholar Donald Richie and film critic Geoffrey O’Brien.
Kurosawa’s many admirers will surely want to examine this new presentation of High and Low, which serves as a compelling combination of police procedural and sharp social commentary. Thanks to this smooth new image transfer and generous supplemental materials, both heaven and hell are well represented as the story moves from the height of luxury to the gallows of death row.