Blu-Ray Review: Akira Kurosawa’s Riveting Thriller ‘High and Low’

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CHICAGO – Very few films from 1963 have the timelessness of Akira Kurosawa’s perfect thriller “High and Low,” a daring piece of tension-building work that takes place almost entirely in one room and in real-time. With people like Martin Scorsese, Mike Nichols, and David Mamet circling a potential remake for years, it’s no wonder the film was chosen for the Blu-ray upgrade this month by Criterion. It’s a classic from one of the form’s best directors. Blu-Ray Rating: 4.5/5.0
Blu-Ray Rating: 4.5/5.0

Kingo Gondo (the great Toshiro Mifune) is a man caught in a nightmare of business needs versus morality. There is no way out that won’t lead to tragedy. He can save the life of an innocent child, but in doing so ruin his own and that of his family. What’s a man to do? Give up everything he’s worked for his entire life? What if a child suffers because if he won’t? It’s an amazing concept that Kurosawa paces perfectly, resulting in a film that feels nowhere near its 143-minute running time. This thing flies and more filmmakers could take a lesson on pacing from it.

High and Low was released on Criterion Blu-Ray and re-released on DVD on July 26th, 2011
High and Low was released on Criterion Blu-Ray and re-released on DVD on July 26th, 2011
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Gondo owns a shoe company caught at a crossroads. His staff wants to make cheaper shoes for higher profits. He wants to take the high road. More importantly, he plans behind their backs to take a large sum of his own money to stage a leveraged buyout and stop a hostile takeover. It’s important to note that the buyout is at the point where there’s no turning back. He must go through with it or, as he says, his family will be penniless. Everything changes with a phone call. Gondo’s son has been kidnapped. He agrees to pay the ransom but then sees his boy run into the room. Was it all a prank? Quickly, they discover that the kidnappers grabbed the wrong boy, taking the son of Gondo’s chauffeur. They still want the money. Will he pay? Even if it means the end of everything for which he’s worked? Would you trade your life for a boy’s? Could you sleep at night if you didn’t?

High and Low was released on Criterion Blu-Ray and re-released on DVD on July 26th, 2011
High and Low was released on Criterion Blu-Ray and re-released on DVD on July 26th, 2011
Photo credit: Courtesy of the Criterion Collection

Most people probably think of lavish period pieces with expensive costumes when they think of Akira Kurosawa but “High and Low” features few costumes, sets, or other details often associated with the masterful filmmaker. It takes place almost entirely in Gondo’s home for over the first hour as the brilliant decision to never leave the side of those impacted by the kidnapping adds to the tension and claustrophobia. Then it turns into something of a police procedural after Gondo makes his decision and the case gets more complicated in its aftermath. Kurosawa doesn’t falter with either the human drama of the first half or the cop movie/mystery of the second. “High and Low” is a great film, one that I must admit that I was unfamiliar with before this Criterion edition. You won’t be disappointed.

“Toshiro Mifune is unforgettable as Kingo Gondo, a wealthy industrialist whose family becomes the target of a cold-blooded kidnapper in Akira Kurosawa’s highly influential domestic drama and police procedural High And Low. Adapting Ed McBain’s detective novel King’s Ransom, Kurosawa moves effortlessly from compelling race-against-time thriller to exacting social commentary, creating a diabolical treatise on class and contemporary Japanese society.”

Special Features:
o Audio commentary featuring Akira Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince
o Thirty-seven-minute documentary on the making of High And Low, created as part of the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful To Create
o Rare video interview with actor Toshiro Mifune, from 1984
o Video interview with actor Tsutomu Yamazaki
o Theatrical trailers and teaser
o Booklet featuring an essay by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and an on-set account by Japanese-film scholar Donald Richie

“High and Low” stars Toshiro Mifune and was directed by Akira Kurosawa. The Criterion edition was released on Blu-ray and re-released on DVD on July 26th, 2011. content director Brian Tallerico

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