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High and Low

High and Low
Criterion 24 (upgrade)
1963 / B&W / 2:35 Tohoscope flat / 142m. / Tengoku to jigoku
Starring Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai, Yutaka Sada, Takashi Shimura, Yoshio Tsuchiya, Hiroshi Unayama, Tsutomu Yamazaki, Susumu Fujita, Kenjiro Ishiyama, Kyoko Kagawa, Takeshi Kato, Isao Kimura, Tatsuya Mihashi
Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saito
Art Direction Yoshiro Muraki
Original Music Masaru Sato
Writing credits Eijiro Hisaita, Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni from the novel King's Ransom by Evan Hunter
Produced by Ryuzo Kikushima, Akira Kurosawa, Tomoyuki Tanaka
Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Criterion has released few if any bum discs, and has been steadily upgrading replacing some of their inferior low numbers. Their first High and Low disc came out almost ten years ago when even top DVD companies were producing discs from laserdisc era, non-enhanced video transfers. Criterion has since substituted better copies of Beauty and the Beast, "M", The Wages of Fear and others. High and Low now joins Criterion's long list of Akira Kurosawa classics in an extra-laden special edition.


From his house overlooking Yokohama, hard-working up-from-the-factory shoe executive Kingo Gondo is directing a careful takeover of his company, a maneuver that requires fast moves with company shares and a large chunk of hard cash. When his small son is kidnapped, Gondo becomes frantic and agrees to pay the ransom ... only to find that the kidnapper has snatched his chauffeur's son in error. Decency demands that he use the money to free the servant's child as if it were his own. Gondo's sacrifice impresses the detectives on the case, who mount a vigorous campaign to catch the kidnapper.

High and Low (literally: Heaven and Hell) is one of Akira Kurosawa's most entertaining pictures, a hardboiled crime classic. Toshiro Mifune once again creates an unforgettable character, a powerful but decent executive pitted against company sharks almost as vicious as those from Kurosawa's previous film, The Bad Sleep Well. In contrast to these predatory moneymen, Gondo is at heart just a shoemaker dedicated to creating a superior product. He demonstrates his commitment to quality by tearing apart a proposed shoe model to show its shoddy construction. When the detectives need to hide a smoke bomb in the valise that will carry the ransom payment, Gondo pulls out his old leatherworking tools and goes right to work on the floor of his soon-to-be repossessed living room.

Adapted from an American crime novel, Kurosawa's story works with dynamic contrasts. Gondo is stranded in one apartment for forty tense minutes, waiting for news from the kidnapper. After that static first section, the movie bursts into a frantic pace as an army of police agents turns the entire city upside down. The kidnapper Takeuchi (a fascinating performance from Tsutomu Yamakazi) has committed his crime out of bitter despair for the inequities between rich and poor. Economics force him to live in stinking, crowded slum housing. All the while he regards Gondo's white house on the hill -- the heaven he seeks to destroy. Like Satan, Takeuchi is a rebellious angel, committing crimes and murdering out of a warped desire to overturn society.

Takeuchi almost succeeds in bringing down the man on the hill. Almost like the Biblical Job, Kingo Gondo loses his business position, his house and all of his possessions. He's given up his hopes of company ownership to save a little boy not his own. The chauffeur will do anything to repay the debt, and causes complications as the detectives close in on their target. Takeuchi, on the other hand, is infuriated by Kingo Gondo's popularity in the sympathetic press. The kidnapper is driven to undertake new horrors, degrading himself even further. An extended sequence takes place in Yokohama's harrowing back-alley drug world. It's far more explicit than what was seen in American films, where drugs were seldom portrayed.

Kurosawa's film is a high-budget Toho production. Location shooting ranges all over the Japanese costal city of Yokohama. An impressive downtown set, all glass and showcases, is populated with hundreds of extras. Foreign sailors were recruited to represent the ugliest Americans imaginable, lolling with the Japanese good-time girls, rocking out to the blaring bands. Takeuchi is pursued through several levels of hell: indifferent hospital waiting rooms, downtown streets, nightclubs, the drug alleys ... and finally to a isolated Enoshima cottage on a garden hill over the ocean. It's as remote a Last Stop as the death shack in the film noir Criss Cross. Both seem to exist at the End of the Earth.

Every scene is good in Kurosawa's film, but the best show an almost Utopian harmony between the Japanese police and media outlets. The chief detective informs the press of his entire strategy and asks for their cooperation on a scheme to fool the kidnapper. The forty reporters agree, and we know that in the communal spirit of cooperation not one of them will exploit the situation (I imagine Japan is a different place now!). Kurosawa again demonstrates his ease with his large and memorable cast. Among the detectives is a bald stage actor who had trouble working on film. Kurosawa liked the actor so much that he slowed down production to accommodate his inexperience.

The film introduced the bullet train to most Western audiences. Kingo Gondo must eject the ransom from an express going over 100 miles per hour. Clever plotting brings Gondo and Takeuchi within a few feet of one another on the city street. A pair of cars winds slowly through the hills, just missing one another, making for a very different kind of suspense scene.

High and Low ends with a stark face-off across a wire screen in a prison visiting room. The one image captures both the film's reality and its social theme, and is an example of graphic simplicity at its best. A sheet of glass superimposes kidnapper over victim, suggesting their souls are equal even if they themselves are polar opposites. Not since I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang has a crime film ended with such an inhuman shriek, like the sound of a damned soul. The exciting High and Low is an excellent starter film for viewers unfamiliar with Japanese cinema.

Criterion's two-disc DVD of High and Low finally gives us Kurosawa's crime classic in a high quality presentation. The enhanced Tohoscope B&W image is crystal clear and the stereo surround audio is an original 4-track mix from 1963. Stephen Prince provides the audio commentary, distilling forty years' worth of praise for this film into a single narrative.

A second disc presents a better-than-average making-of docu from a Japanese TV show. Kurosawa went to extravagant lengths to achieve realism, including using several different sets for Gondo's house. For night scenes, a set was built with a vast cityscape miniature beyond the picture windows. Kurosawa filmed the train sequence in real time with seven cameras and dozens of extras working in close confinement with the nervous Mifune. When one of the cameras jammed, a second 100-mph pass had to be rigged from scratch. To get a clear view of the kidnapper from the moving train, Kurosawa had a roof removed from a garage near the tracks.

Interestingly, the Japanese TV show regards Kurosawa's "drug hell" sequence as unrealistic and weak; it must be referring to the scene's essential theatricality. High and Low's surface styles shift from docu realism to unearthly delirium.

Toshiro Mifune is seen on a talk show, being chatty with a respectful hostess who kids him about his reputation for extreme cleanliness. Actor Tsutomu Yamazaki remembers being given careful handling by Kurosawa, and wearing those mirrored sunglasses. Also included are two trailers, an essay by Geoffrey O'Brien and a remembrance from the set by Donald Richie. The disc producer for Criterion is Abbey Lustgarten.

Thanks to Dave Jenkins for some corrections to the text. (3.17.09)

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, High and Low rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: none
Packaging: keep case
Reviewed: July 29, 2008

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