Blu-ray Review: High and Low

After his two great action comedies (Yojimbo and Sanjuro) and before his last black and white historical epic (Red Beard), Akira Kurosawa made one of the best crime thrillers of the 1960’s. Now Criterion brings a high-definition copy into your home.

Toshiro Mifune (who else?) stars as a successful highandlowbusinessman who thinks he’s off the hook when a kidnapper snatches the wrong boy, leaving the businessman’s son safe. But the kidnapper still insists on the ransom (large enough to destroy the industrialist’s tenuous hold on his company), forcing the man into a moral dilemma. Can he let another man’s son die for his career?

Most of High and Low‘s first half takes place in the living room of a rich man’s house overlooking a teeming city. Kurosawa uses the wide, Tohoscope frame brilliantly in that confined space. A speeding train blasts the film’s setting wide open, and the second half takes us into police headquarters, garbage incinerators, hospitals, and whorehouses.

See my Kurosawa Diary entry for a more detailed discussion of the movie itself.

First Impression

With Criterion, you never have to work your way through trailers to see the movie. highandlowboxInsert the disc, and after a reasonable wait, the main menu comes up.

How It Looks

I was initially disappointed by Criterion’s transfer, but that didn’t last. Early scenes looked grainy, with too much contrast. Even the subtitles were difficult to read. Perhaps there’s no good source for the first reel.

Whatever the problem, it disappeared soon enough. Grays started to appear, along with fine details in walls and curtains. Moving camera shots—and there are quite a few of them—brought a sense of depth that was lacking in earlier video transfers. The train sequence was particularly effective.

The second half contains a lot of squalor, and that too made full use of the high resolution. This is not a pretty picture, but it is one that depends on small visual details to make its dramatic impact. Criterion provides those details generously.

This widescreen black and white film contains two short color shots. Actually, they’re black and white shots with colored smoke added. I’ve never seen them look as good as they do here.

How It Sounds

Toho originally released High and Low with a four-track stereo magnetic soundtrack. Criterion recreates that mix here in lossless, 4.0 DTS-HD Master Audio. This is the first Blu-ray title I’ve encountered that offered a pre-Dolby stereo mix without lossy compression. (Fox, which invented the four-track format in 1953, has released some films with original 4.0 mixes, but always in lossy Dolby Digital.)

Not that this movie makes heavy use of those four tracks. Although Kurosawa used some form of stereo for 12 of his last 13 films, he tended to use it subtlety. The music over the opening credits have a true stereo wow feeling, but after that, Kurosawa uses the front side speakers rarely but intelligently, while making the center speaker do most of the work. If there’s any surround in this picture, I didn’t notice it.

To my knowledge, none of Kurosawa’s first seven stereo films have ever been released theatrically in this country with anything better than mono sound. That’s a shame, and it should be rectified.

And the Extras

Most of the extras on this disc came with the DVD. They include an interesting commentary by Stephen Prince that discusses everything from crime in Japan in the 1960s, the American source material, and Kurosawa’s multi-camera technique. As with all Criterion Kurosawa discs, it comes with a section from the Japanese TV series Akira Kurosawa: It is Wonderful to Create. There’s also a 1981 TV interview with Toshiro Mifune, and a more recent interview with Tsutomu Yamazaki, who played the kidnapper.

If you like Kurosawa, or if you like noir, this is a disc worth getting.