High and Low
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.
Criterion brings their 2-disc DVD reissue of Akira Kirosawa's High and Low over to Blu-ray, again presenting the film in its original aspect ratio of about 2.35:1 on a dual-layer disc. The transfer is brought to us in 1080p/24hz.
The DVD edition still looks fine, even upscaled, but the Blu-ray certainly offers a more filmic look and is much cleaner, less noisy than that DVD (and it should go without saying it looks light-years better than Criterion's original non-anamorphic DVD.) Film grain looks far more natural here despite a few noisy sequences, which can be amplified by what is either some mild pulsating or possibly the remnants of minor chemical stains. This can also lead to some shimmering effects on fine patterns on clothing or the walls of Gondo's house. I also noticed ringing or halos scattered about, most noticeable when the blooming whites are against darker backgrounds, but I'll admit that I'm unsure whether this is something that was picked up while filming. Sharpness, though, is quite good, still noticeably improved upon over the previous DVD.
Other than some minor marks, the pulsating, and some softer out-of-focus shots the print is in excellent condition. In all it still has some problems but it's a much sharper, more film-like presentation, and does offer a noticeable improvement over the 2008 DVD edition.
The 4.0 DTS-HD MA surround track also receives a noticeable improvement. While the majority of the track sticks heavily to the fronts, the center in particular, it still makes some surprising use of the surrounds, noticeable during the train sequence, and in a couple of exterior scenes, but the panning and movement admittedly doesn't sound entirely natural, more than likely an issue with the age of the track. It still has some mild distortion but it's cleaner I think in comparison to the DVD. Dialogue sounds clean and natural, and there's no damage to speak of. In all it has some issues because of its age but it's a decent surround track.
This Blu-ray edition ports everything over from Criterion's 2-disc DVD re-issue from 2008.
First we get the same audio commentary by Stephen Prince. Prince's commentary covers just about all aspects on the making of the film, focusing heavily on Kurosawa's techniques, especially during the first half of the film, which takes place primarily in Gondo's (Mifune) living room. He gives a lot of information about the shoot during other scenes, such as the sequence on the train and the climax in the seedier side of town. He makes some comparisons to the original novel and also touches on how Japan's judicial system treated kidnappings at the time (more like robberies) and how laws were changed around the time of the film's release and the film's reception at the time of its release (Kurosawa apparently received threats.) My favourite little bit comes where Prince mentions that Kurosawa wanted Nakadai to come off more like Peter Fonda, even shaving back his hairline. What I most appreciated about the track, though, was Prince pointing out of the nuances and even symbolism within the film that I've missed in the past. During the last half he does sort of resort more to commenting about the onscreen action but it's an excellent, informative track overall.
The remaining supplements begins with a documentary from the Toho Masterworks series Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create. This just shy of 37-minute documentary pulls together interviews with members of the cast and crew, even getting interview segments with Kurosawa. It focuses on different sequences throughout the movie, members of the crew going over how the sequences were shot and some of Kurosawa's techniques. A lot of the material here is covered in the commentary as well, but the people gathered for the interviews offer interesting anecdotes (Nakadai commenting on having to shave his hairline back). I think most interesting was Kurosawa's issues with actor Kenjiro Ishiyama, Kurosawa having to take multiple takes of most of his sequences, which was an issue during the train sequence. As well (briefly discussed in the commentary) is the mention of an alternate ending that was actually shot but later abandoned by Kurosawa. Apparently the ending was a real issue for the director, having others come up with ideas, but he eventually chose the ending that the film has currently. I like this series overall and was pleased with the inclusion of this episode.
The next feature is probably my favourite one: An interview with Toshiro Mifune. Coming from a Japanese TV show called Tetsuku's Room, this particular episode airing in 1981. The focus is heavy on the TV film Shogun that came out during that period, so this was probably more a publicity piece. But still, it's an absolutely fascinating interview, at least for me since I've never seen an interview with Mifune before. Along with Shogun he discusses some of his other projects, including working with John Frankenheimer on The Challenge and (more amusingly, since he says the film has been in production for three years) Terence Young's Inchon (I would have actually loved to hear more about that one.) There's some fluffy bits in it, but thankfully most of it goes over Mifune's career and how he got into acting (purely by accident) and he also touches on his service in the army during the war. There's even mention of the acting school he is opening. The piece runs over 30-minutes and is worth watching if you're an admirer of Mifune's work.
The final big supplement is a 19-minute interview with actor Tsutomu Yamazaki, who plays the kidnapper in the film and exclusively filmed for Criterion. He talks about how he got the role, Kurosawa looking for somewhat of a newcomer, and his nerves during the audition. He mentions it was a tough shoot, and reminisces fondly on making the film, recalling his relationship with Mifune (who would drive him to the station in his sports car so he could catch his train home), working with Kurosawa, and recalls a friend who also worked on the film who died shortly after completion. He also gives an analysis of his character and his motivations. It's a nice, reflective interview, and along with everything else is worth viewing.
Closing off the supplements are three trailers. The first is the original Japanese trailer that actually contains footage from the original ending (this footage apparently doesn't exist anywhere else). There's also a Japanese teaser trailer, which starts with how this film apparently helped change Japan's kidnapping laws. And then closing off this section is the American trailer, which makes the film look more Hitchcockian.
And finally there's a rather thick 37-page booklet that at a glance looks to be the same as the one available in the DVD edition's. It contains an essay by Geoffrey O'Brien, offering his own analysis of the film. And then there's an article by Donald Richie from a 1963 issue of Films and Filming coming from the set of Kurosawa's film, offering some insight into the making of the film (or at least one of the first sequences in the film) and Kurosawa's previous work. Both make for excellent reads.
Not a whole lot but I'm still happy with them, finding them informative and fairly fun to go through. It's also still a huge upgrade over the original featureless DVD edition.
I was more than happy with the 2008 DVD edition and am of course still happy with this Blu-ray. I still think the DVD edition looks fine, if noisier in comparison to this, but the Blu-ray is clearly the winner looking more like a film despite some minor problems (which admittedly could be inherent in the source materials used.) With the strong supplements it's come with a high recommendation.