Akira Kurosawa’s best-known films are period and costume epics, but with Seven Samurai and Ran, my two personal favorites are Ikiru and High and Low. They’re by far the most emotionally engrossing of his work.
Criterion has recently published a high-definition upgrade of the latter. Pretty much everything about the new transfer is sensational. It’s another strong example of the company’s fastidiousness in marrying the best possible technologies to produce the best possible video (the first iteration was one of the first titles the company released, and the difference is pronounced).
Adapted from Ed McBain’s King’s Ransom, Kurosawa’s movie has a bifurcated structure, the first part detailing the confusion and anxiety of a young boy who’s kidnapped. The tyke is mistakenly thought the son of a wealthy industrialist but he’s actually the boy’s playmate, the son of the wealthy man’s chauffeur.
The second part is about the search for the assailant following the paying out of the ransom. The movie is built on dissonances and sharp contrasts. The Japanese title is “heaven and hell,” indicative of the sharp differences in class, cultural differences and social standing. Kurosawa visualizes that profound divide in shuttling the action between the elevated, detached world of the privileged and the knat-like swarming of the masses.
The Western title is more indicative of the movie’s grammar and shape. It better reconciles the dual parts, of both the story and Kurosawa’s sharp, trenchant critique of the hierarchal patterns and institutional structure of Japanese society.
The movie acknowledges the country’s extraordinary post-war economic recovery, just one generation removed from the cataclysmic ruin and catastrophe of fallen empire. Toshiro Mifune strikes a lot of the right chords as the industrialist, playing a man who at the start has leveraged all of his holdings in order to secure a controlling interest in the shoe concern that accounts for his elevated social position.
A terrific book I read this summer was Hampton Sides’s Hellhound on His Trail, about the extraordinary two-month manhunt for James Earl Ray after he shot Martin Luther King in April, 1968. Sides does some superb forensic work of his own, painstakingly documenting the breadth of the investigation, one that moved throughout the United States, Mexico, Canada and Britain.
The book has some fascinating parallels with Kurosawa’s film, concerned with the same intuition, the grunt work, the painstakingly small, seemingly unrelated parts that contribute mightily to the details of the police procedural. In the Kurosawa film, there’s a wonderfully tense and telling moment when one of the police specialists, listening to a recording of the assailant during a ransom demand, divines a specific background noise that proves crucial in narrowing the man’s location.
High and Low is one of Kurosawa’s best directed films; it satisfies the genre requirements but also finds a lot of digressive and colorful in-between parts. It’s plot-heavy, but it never feels especially episodic or overly structured. Kurosawa plays off time and space (the movie’s nearly two and a half hours long, but it never feels slow or too ungainly), and he’s willing to push the work away from Mifune and privilege the grubby, meticulous work of the cops and detectives.
Despite the corrosive sheen, the movie‘s very hopeful in other ways, believing that the tradition-bound Japan will give way to something more elemental and direct, reflective in the unequivocal friendship between the two young boys.
The black and white widescreen framing of cinematographer Asakazu Nakai is absolutely breathtaking, as is the movie‘s one supremely imaginative use of color (which Speilberg ripped off in Schindler’s List). Two other key collaborators, art director Yoshiro Muraki and lighting director Ichiro Inohara, do precise and lyrical work, especially at the start, so important in establishing the claustrophobic tone of the movie’s opening third, where almost all the action is confined to the lavishly appointed home of the industrialist.
The ending, without giving too much away, is also a very interesting inversion of Bresson’s preferred ending, especially Pickpocket, of rather than a criminal seeking absolution and redemption finds the man seeking a wholly different form of self-justification.
Back in the early nineties, when they were working a lot together, Martin Scorsese and Richard Price talked often about doing an American remake. Fortunately, for all sides, that never came to account. Kurosawa’s critical reputation has always been volatile, to say the least.
High and Low justifies the hype.