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High and Low – The Criterion Collection #24 (a J!-ENT Blu-ray Disc Review)

July 21, 2011 by  



Addictive, riveting and a fantastic film that will captivate you from beginning to end!  An Akira Kurosawa classic receives its Blu-ray release in America and if you owned the previous DVD releases from the Criterion Collection, this latest release is highly recommended!

Image courtesy of ©1963 Toho Co., Ltd 2008 Toho Co., Ltd. © 2011 The Criterion Collection. All Rights Reserved.

TITLE: High and Low – THE CRITERION COLLECTION #24 (Tengoku to Jigoku)

YEAR OF FILM: 1963

DURATION: 143 Minutes

BLU-RAY DISC INFORMATION: Black and White/Color, 4.0 Surround in Japanese with English Subtitles, 2:35:1 Aspect Ratio

COMPANY: Janus Films/THE CRITERION COLLECTION

RELEASE DATE: July 26, 2011

Directed by Akira Kurosawa

Based on the novel by Kingu no Minoshirokin (King’s Ransom) by Ed McBain

Screenplay by Hideo Oguni, Ryuzo Kikushima, Eijiro Hisaita, Akira Kurosawa

Produced by Ryuzo Kikushima, Tomoyuki Tanaka

Associate Producer: Akira Kurosawa

Music by Masaru Sato

Cinematography by Asakazu Nakai, Tako Saito

Production Design by Asakazu Nakai, Takao Saito

Production Design by Miyuki Suzuki

Starring:

Toshiro Mifune as Kingo Gondo

Tatsuya Nakadai as Chief Detective Tokura

Kyoko Kagawa as Reiko Gondo

Tatsuya Mihashi as Kawanishi – Gondo’s Secretary

Isao Kimura as Detective Arai

Kenjiro Ishiyama as Chief Detective “Bos’n’ Taguchi

Takeshi Kato as Detective Nakao

Takashi Shimura as Chief of Investigation Section

Jun Tazaki as Kamiya, National Shoes Publicity Director

Nobuo Nakamura as Ishimaru, National Shoes Design Department

Yunosuke Ito as Baba – National Shoes Executive

Tsutomu Yamazaki as Ginjiro Takeuchi, Medical Intern

Toshiro Mifune is unforgettable as Kingo Gondo, a wealthy industrialist whose family becomes the target of a cold-blooded kidnapper in High and Low (Tengoku to jigoku), the highly influential domestic drama and police procedural from director Akira Kurosawa. 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 contemporary Japanese society.

Another fantastic film from legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa and a wonderful performance by Toshiro Mifune!  A film that will truly have you at the edge of your seat!

“Tengoku to Jigoku” (which translates to “Heaven and Hell” but is known internationally as “High and Low”) is a 1963 film that features another collaboration with actor Toshiro Mifune and is a film adaptation of Ed McBain’s novel “Kings Ransom” that would focus on how one can become blackmailed despite not having direct involvement with a kidnapping.

The film also is a statement from Kurosawa as children in Japan during the early ’60s were being kidnapped and murdered and showing his distaste towards the Japanese law in which criminals would only get a few years of incarceration.

With the film having been released in the late ’90s on DVD by the Criterion Collection, the film was re-released with more special features and a better transfer in 2008.  So, here we are in 2011 and “High and Low” receives its Blu-ray release courtesy of the Criterion Collection, the first HD release of the title in America.

“High and Low” begins with an executive named Kingo Gondo (played by Toshiro Mifune).   He is visited by the head executives of National Shoes, the company he works for and oversees quality control.

But the executives are concerned about their profits and want Gondo to release cheap, low-quality shoes in order to have more women buy more shoes.  Meanwhile, the president and owner of the company wants to focus on quality but continue to release shoes that no longer fashionable.

So, the executives come up with a plan to use their clout and join forces because the own shares of the company and oust the president of National Shoes.

But Gondo believes that in order for National Shoes to survive, quality control must be kept but also to incorporate modern fashion sense.  But the executives disagree.  They try to entice him with being second-in-command of National Shoes if he joins them and oust the President but for Gondo, he is unwilling to let the company release low-quality shoes.  He has pride in the company and its shoes and only wants what is best for the consumer, something that his fellow executives don’t believe in.

After an angry exchange, Gondo’s wife Reiko (played by Kyoko Kagawa) wants to know why he was arguing with his co-workers.  But Gondo smirks and tells her and his secretary Kawanishi (played by Tatsuya Mihashi) that he has a plan just in case the executives try to oust him.

But while he tries to explain, his son Jun (dressed like a cowboy) and his friend Shinichi (who happens to be Gondo’s chauffer’s son) begin playing with each other and are told to play outside.  Before Jun and Shinichi go out, June lets Shinichi wear his cowboy outfit.

As Gondo explains to his wife and Kawanishi, he tells them that the reason why he is confident that he would win against the executives is because he has been buying shares of the company for the last three years.  And he has literally took out a significant loan to purchase shares from others and using his home as collateral in order to become the largest shareholder of the company.

All that needs to be done is for Kawanishi to go and deposit the check for 500 million yen and National Shoes will be his company.

But before Gondo can celebrate, he receives a phone call from a kidnapper who tells him that he has his son and if he wants his son to be alive, he would have to pay 30 million yen.  Worried that his son is kidnapped, Gondo knows the money is important for him to get control of National Shoes or else, he will be the executive ousted.  The kidnapper gives him time to think about the arrangement which must be done quite soon.

As both Gondo and his wife worry about Jun, Jun shows up in the house.  So, Gondo wonders if the call he received was a prank call.  Meanwhile, Shinichi’s father has come to pick him up but to find out that he is gone.

Both Gondo and his wife realize that Jun and Shinichi have switched outfits and that the kidnapper actually took his chauffeur’s son.

Gondo calls the police and because the police expect that the kidnapper may be monitoring them, they pretend to be working for a delivery company.

What the police needs is to tape the kidnapper talking but for Gondo to talk to the kidnapper long enough in order to trace the call.  But when the kidnapper calls, the kidnapper realizes that he took the wrong child but still, the kidnapper has leverage over him and he needs to know if Gondo will be bringing the 30 million yen and if Gondo refuses, the kidnapper warns him that if he doesn’t comply, the child is dead.

And this leads to a struggle for Gondo as he had worked hard all these years at National Shoes but now he is within moments of buying and taking control of the company thus ensuring their livelihood.

But Gondo’s wife can’t bare the guilt if Shinichi dies,  because she feels that the only reason Shinichi was kidnapped was because they were going after their son Jun.  So, she wants him to save Shinichi because a human life is more important than money and prestige.

Even Shinichi’s father begs Gondo to please save his child.  But Gondo is torn because he sacrificed a lot and is taking a risky chance of losing everything.

Everyone knows that Gondo is in a difficult predicament and no one is sure what he will do.  As for the police, they learn quickly that the kidnapper is not only bright but he must live nearby because knows something is going on inside the house.

The lead investigator understand Gondo’s predicament but probably the best way to capture this kidnapper is for Gondo to pay the ransom and just buy them time by telling the kidnapper that he will pay.

Put in a tight position, what will Gondo do?  Will he stick with his original plan of using his money to buy the shares of National Shoes and takeover the company and have a child die or will he help the child buy paying the ransom money and losing everything?

The phone rings and the kidnapper wants to know his answer.  What will Gondo do next?

The second half of the film features the police going after the kidnapper.  Determined to catch the criminal, we watch as the police force in action, from collecting evidence and doing all they can to make sure that he is caught.  Meanwhile, the kidnapper has now ventured into homicide and because he is quite bright, the investigator’s know they must be careful in catching this criminal.  Especially due to Japan’s law towards kidnappers (kidnappers only serve five years in prison), the police will do whatever it takes to make sure he serves the time for the crimes he committed.

VIDEO:

“High and Low” is presented  in 1080p High Definition (2:35:1 aspect ratio).  As one would expect from a Blu-ray compared to a DVD version, you get more detail, better clarity and solid contrast.

But for those who upgraded or purchased the 2008 re-release, the 2008 DVD was a pretty big difference as the Criterion Collection had improved their digital remastering and also with newer technology, were able to do a much better job in cleaning the video and audio.  For the 2011 Blu-ray release, you literally see details much clearly.

Yes, the black levels continue to be nice and inky black, the grays and the white contrast levels look impeccable and also less blur and more detail in the faces of the characters.  We know that the characters are feeling hot and sweaty during the humid weather but we now see it clearly with the bead of sweat on the faces of the detectives.   The textures of the clothing or even the fabric on Gondo’s walls, you can sense it.  You can see sheen off of Gondo’s hair, you can see the detail of the wood on his bathroom door.

And the picture quality, it looked much cleaner and yes, while it uses the same 2008 source, the fact that its HD makes a big difference in the film’s overall PQ.

For those wondering why the film shows B&W and color, it’s because the primary film is black and white but there is one scene where color is utilized.

According to the Criterion Collection, this high-definition digital transfer was created on a Spirit 4K Datacine from a 35 mm fine-grain master positive and for the color sequence, a 35 mm interpositive.  Thousands of instances of dirt, debris, scratches, splices, warps, jitter and flicker were manually removed using MTI’s DRS system and Pixel Farm’s PFClean system, while Digital Vision’s DVNR system was used for small dirt, grain and noise reduction.

AUDIO & SUBTITLES:

“High and Low” is presented with a lossless LPCM 4.0 surround soundtrack.  The dialogue is incredibly clear and it’s great to have a DTS-HD Master Audio 4.0 soundtrack which gives us a solid balance of crystal clear dialogue, clear music and more clearer ambiance than the previous DVD release.

According to the Criterion Collection, “High and Low” was remastered at 24-bit from the original 4-track stems.  Clicks, thumps, hiss and hum were manually removed using Pro Tools HD.  Crackle was attenuated using AudioCube’s integrated workstation.

SPECIAL FEATURES:

“High and Low – The Criterion Collection #24” on Blu-ray comes with the following special features:

  • Audio commentary – Featuring an audio commentary by Akira Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince.
  • Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create – (37:02) A 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”.
  • Toshiro Mifune – (30:31) A rare video interview with actor Toshiro Mifune from 1981’s TV Asahi show “Tetsuko no Heya” (Tetsuko’s Room) as he is interviewed by Tetsuko Kuroyanagi about his international roles that were coming a the time, how the military photographer became an actor and more.
  • Tsutomu Yamazaki – (19:03) A Criterion Collection exclusive video interview with actor Tsutomu Yamazaki (who plays the kidnapper) about how he got cast, working with Kurosawa and his role in the film.
  • Trailers – Japanese Trailer – (3:38), Japanese teaser (1:54) and US Trailer (1:43)

EXTRAS:

“High and Low – The Criterion Collection #24” comes with a 38-page booklet which includes the following essays “Between Heaven and Hell” by Geoffrey O’Brien and “On the Set of High and Low” by Donald Richie.

“High and Low” is an addictive, riveting and a fantastic film that will captivate you from beginning to end!

For those who are only familiar with Kurosawa samurai films, I have no doubt in my mind that they will enjoy “High and Low” and be captivated by the the cinematography (Kurosawa utilizes the spacing in the film wonderfully) and also performances by Toshiro Mifune, Tatsuya Nakadai and Kyoko Nakagawa.

The film’s original title is “Tengoku to Jigoku” which literally means “Heaven and Hell”.  The storyline of “High and Low” is presented in two connected storylines as “Tengoku” (Heaven/High) is depicted on the Gondo’s home on top of the hill.  Right outside of the home, lurking below is where the poor live and characterized by others as “Jigoku” (hell/low).

The first part of the film takes place in what the poor may think is “Jigoku”, being rich and in heaven.  While the first half of the storyline focuses primarily inside the house of Gondo, everything is shot in the house, from Gondo’s meeting with the executives, where the police are camping out in hopes to trace the call from the kidnapper and where discussion and arguments of what Gondo should do take place in the living room of the home.

The second half of the film focuses on the detectives doing all they can to capture the kidnapper and we are given a glimpse of the world of the kidnapper.

But the prevailing theme is very Kurosawa.  There is always a sense of a character who is admirable and determined and undeterred.  Gondo is an everyman who works for the people, he may be an executive but he prides himself on the quality of his shoes and will not let any other executive exploit the company for their own selfish reasons.  Throughout the first half of the film, we witness his struggle because he literally sacrificed everything, including his home in order to take control of the company, which he is doing it not just for his family but to ensure that the company makes quality shoes for the women who wear them.  But he knows the risks that sacrificing a child to move up in the corporate ladder can also mean his doom.

But we know that losing all the money to pay off the ransom will not only save the child but it will definitely lead the family and Gondo to financial ruin and because the amount is so high, it would lead his family to eternal debt.

And that is the intriguing factor that Kurosawa felt about Ed McBain’s novel “King’s Ransom”.  The fact that the protagonist is being blackmailed by a kidnapper who kidnap a child that is not even his but yet affects his life greatly, rendering this powerful man to now becoming powerless.  Whichever decision he makes, it appears to be a double-edge sword.

But by the second half of the film, we see the hard work that goes into helping Gondo by finding the kidnapper.  The kidnapper vs. the police storyline becomes the main focus of the second half.

And for those not familiar with Japanese pop culture and entertainment, the images of a large police force working together for the same cause continues in television and film today as seen in the popular drama and film series”Odoru Daisousassen” (Tokyo Bay Shakedown).  Whereas in a western film, we can see two or a handful of officers wanting to help the victim, in Japanese cinema, its the camaraderie of all officers (including from different precincts) willing to work together.

The other topic which Kurosawa was also trying to drive home was his feelings of Japan’s leniency in their laws for kidnappers.  In the ’60s, children in Japan were kidnapped and murdered.  Today, many still have issues with Japanese law towards kidnapping, stalking and people not paying the price for the severity of the crime.

This is emphasized in how the police will catch the kidnapper in “High and Low” and it is really clever writing and expose it to a mass audience in hopes to have changes in Japanese law.  Today, Japan is a believer in “rehabilitation” and in some cases, keeping these criminals incarcerated for a short time rather than keeping one behind-bars and serving a long sentence.

In “High and Low”, we get to see police and press work together in capturing the criminal.  But times have changed in Japan to the point that times have changed in Japan as seen in the Japanese 2000 TV Asahi drama series “Tsugumi e” in which a kidnapper kills the child of a couple and the family is literally victimized by the police and press.

But there is no denying the efficacy of Kurosawa’s “High and Low”, especially with its powerful final scene which I rather not spoil for everyone.   Ever since I watched this film many years ago, the confrontation between Gondo and the kidnapper was brilliant and despite Kurosawa shooting various endings for the film, his decision to stay with both men, one-on-one was correct.

So, now we come down to the question for those who purchase the 2008 DVD re-releae of “High and Low” and whether or not its worth it to upgrade to Blu-ray.

For some people, there must be something additional added to a release in order for one to upgrade and for “High and Low”, in terms of special features, there is nothing new that has been added.  But it comes down to one’s appreciation of watching a wonderful film from a legendary filmmaker in HD.  Do you want the definitive version of “High and Low”?  Then you definitely want to upgrade to Blu-ray because it looks spectacular on Blu-ray and the audio quality is crystal clear.

Overall, It’s great to have more Akira Kurosawa on Blu-ray courtesy of the Criterion Collection and for those who were only exposed to Kurosawa’s samurai films will no doubt find a reason to be curious about “High and Low” as the first Criterion Collection Kurosawa release that is not a samurai film.

But if you are a cineaste who enjoys great cinema, especially a film that grabs your attention from beginning to end, then this Blu-ray is simply a no-brainer and is a definite must-buy.

“High and Low – The Criterion Collection #24” on Blu-ray is highly recommended!






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