It’s easy to forget sometimes that Akira Kurosawa was a great filmmaker, not just someone who made great samurai movies. “High and Low” demonstrates his range of ability as he tackles a police procedural set in early 1960s Japan. Kurosawa adapted the story from Ed McBain’s novel “King’s Ransom,” although, as Kurosawa scholar Stephen Prince points out in the commentary, the director recast the storyline, morphing it from a celebration of success at any cost into a cautionary tale about losing one’s humanity to greed.
Kurosawa regular Toshiro Mifune plays Kingo Gondo, a shoe company executive who has concocted a scheme to wrest control of the firm from colleagues who want to tarnish its reputation by producing shoddy merchandise at inflated prices. When a kidnapper nabs Gondo’s chauffeur’s son, however, the money that was to fulfill those plans instead goes to the ransom, threatening to ruin Gondo’s career. Of course, Gondo isn’t willing to part with the money before he agonizes over the decision first, despite the fact that a boy’s life is at stake.
Most of the film’s first 45 minutes or so takes place almost completely in Gondo’s mansion, making it feel like a stage play, but the character recedes to the background during the second half, as the police concoct a plan to find the kidnapper after he thwarts them during the money-for-kid exchange. The story turns into a suspenseful game of cat-and-mouse that takes us into the lower depths of Japanese society, concluding with a taut scene featuring Mifune and his nemesis. Thus we come to understand the film’s title.
Like his commentary tracks on other Kurosawa films, Prince’s discussion of “High and Low” feels like a film class lecture. Whether that’s good or bad depends on what you want out of a commentary track; personally, I prefer Prince’s approach, especially considering the fact that he obviously prepared ahead of time, something that a lot of commentary participants obviously don’t do.
Over on disc two, we have another installment in the series “Akira Kurosawa: It Is Wonderful to Create.” This one runs 37 minutes and digs into the making of the film. It’s a comprehensive look at production, although it makes a big deal about the special effects in the scene with the pink smoke but never explains how the shot was achieved. Otherwise, it’s a nice piece.
Disc two also includes a Mifune interview from 1981 that runs 30 minutes and covers much of his early life and complete career. Criterion says it’s a rare piece of video. The platter concludes with a contemporary 19-minute interview with Tsutomu Yamazaki, who plays the kidnapper. The movie’s US and Japanese trailers are also included.
Finally, Criterion included a booklet that features two essays about the movie, one written for this release by critic Geoffrey O’Brien and the other composed for a 1960s magazine by Japanese film scholar Donald Ritchie. Printed materials in DVD releases tend to be a rarity these days, especially among the major studios. It’s nice to see that Criterion remains a step ahead.